Viral hepatitis is ‘deadly but overlooked,’ says ITM


Antwerp’s Institute for Tropical Medicine is leading the field in screening and treating hepatitis patients in developing countries, which has been ignored far too long, it says

‘A game-changer’

Antwerp’s Institute for Tropical Medicine (ITM) has issued a warning about the “deadly but overlooked” viral hepatitis epidemic on the occasion of World Hepatitis Day, which is today. The disease receives little public attention, ITM said, despite being responsible for as many deaths as HIV and tuberculosis combined.

Some 1.5 million people a year die from hepatitis worldwide, about one-third of them from chronic hepatitis C. Some 71 million people are infected with hepatitis C. 

The problem, said researcher Anja De Weggheleire “lies in the cost and complexity of treatment,” which has meant it has gone untreated in developing countries. Her work in Cambodia has shown that screenings and new treatments can make a major difference.

“Since 2014, direct-acting antivirals have been available, which cure more people in less time,” she explained. “This well-tolerated oral treatment is a game-changer, but the big question is how to put it into practice in countries with limited resources and health infrastructure. That starts with actually finding the hepatitis patients, and as early as possible.”

ITM has teamed up with the Sihanouk Hospital Center of Hope in Phnom Penh, where more than 3,000 HIV patients were screened for hepatitis C. More than 100 were found to be infected – mostly people over 50, with diabetes or with a family history of liver disease.

The team will now move on to evaluate the antivirals. “We hope that this project will contribute to generating awareness and action, as well as providing the tools for clinicians to make diagnoses and get patients on treatment,” De Weggheleire said. “Most hepatitis C patients live in low- and middle-income countries; that is where we need to make detection and treatment work.”

Photo: A member of the staff of the Phnom Penh clinic takes a family history from a patient
© Institute for Tropical Medicine

Institute of Tropical Medicine

The Antwerp-based ITM is one of the world’s leading tropic health institutes. This government-funded centre focuses on tropical medicine research and on health care in developing countries.
History - The School of Tropical Medicine, the institute’s forerunner, was established by King Leopold II to respond to health issues in the then Free State of Congo.
Standby - The institute offers 24/7 guidance to medical practitioners who are treating patients with tropical diseases.
Vaccines - Among ordinary Flemings, the centre is best known for the medical services it provides to travellers, such as vaccinations, medical consultations and travel advice.

staff members

1 906

institute was founded

30 000

medical consultations per year