On World Hepatitis Day, what we need is more awareness, mass vaccination and enforcement of safe injection practices to shield people from this easily preventable disease.

After becoming the diabetes and chronic kidney disease capital of the world, India is on its way to claiming the dubious honour for yet another disease: hepatitis. Its incidence is rising rapidly, with 1.1 million Indians suffering from hepatitis B, leading to 240,000 deaths each year, according to WHO figures. Hepatitis C claims another 96,000 Indians annually.

Pratibha (name changed), a 17-year-old girl from Punjab, was horrified when she was diagnosed for hepatitis B after undertaking a blood test during a dental procedure. Pratibha is not an isolated case. Millions of people in India haplessly encounter this reality in their lives unknowingly. In an age when heart ailments hog print space, people overlook the fact that liver diseases can be contracted easily.

Hepatitis is inflammation (irritation or swelling) of the liver mostly caused by a viral infection. Symptoms include jaundice, dark urine, fatigue, vomiting, and stomach pain. But sometimes, patients show no symptoms at all, making it hard to detect without proper tests.

The burden of blood-borne diseases like hepatitis B, C and D and HIV/AIDS can be substantially reduced by the simple but very effective measure of banning the reuse of injections. Worldwide, 33 per cent of new cases of hepatitis B and 42 per cent of hepatitis C every year are caused by unsafe injections, according to WHO figures.

In India, as repeated outbreaks of Hepatitis B and C have shown, a major danger arises from unsafe injection practices and the reuse of needles. Given India’s endemic risk factors, it is imperative to spread awareness about the dangers of unsafe injection practices. This needs to be backed by strict enforcement of norms to make certain that accidental transmission of disease is prevented altogether or reduced to the minimum.

Hepatitis cases are rising in India because most people don’t know what it is and how it can be prevented. This is unfortunate as hepatitis is the second biggest preventable cause of cancer after tobacco, say medical experts. The Government needs to organise a countrywide education campaign among health workers about the importance of injection safety.

Children and adults alike have to be encouraged to get vaccinated against hepatitis A and B, the two strains for which vaccines are available. Healthcare workers face the prospects of contracting hepatitis B and C due to occupational exposure to blood and other body fluids. The most common way in which they contract hepatitis is by needle stick injuries, especially those involving hollow needles. Some areas like surgery, gynecology and orthopedic services pose a higher risk. Vaccination and adherence to universal standard precautions are the only way for healthcare workers to protect themselves from hepatitis.

Reducing the exposure of people to the viruses still remains the best bet to decrease the disease burden. Treatment is very expensive. Worse, many patients don’t even get to know they have hepatitis until it is too late. We need more awareness, mass vaccination and strict enforcement of safe injection practices to shield people from this easily preventable disease.