As the global community marks World Hepatitis Day, WCM-Q, home to the region’s first WHO Collaborating Center for Infectious Disease Epidemiology Analytics, continues its fight against viral hepatitis

Within one of Qatar Foundation’s international partner universities, experts are working to make the region more resilient against the ravages of infectious diseases – including hepatitis.

The Infectious Disease Epidemiology Group (IDEG) at Weill Cornell Medicine-Qatar (WCM-Q) has been designated as a World Health Organization (WHO) Collaborating Center for Infectious Disease Epidemiology Analytics. It is the first of its kind in the Eastern Mediterranean Region, which consists of 22 countries and has a population of nearly 583 million people.

Professor Laith Abu-Raddad
Professor Laith Abu-Raddad

The WHO designation represents a landmark for the IDEG, which was established a little over a decade ago. Led by Professor Laith Abu-Raddad, Professor of Infectious Disease Epidemiology at WCM-Q, the group has since carried out over 100 studies on the epidemiology of viral hepatitis, HIV/AIDS, and sexually-transmitted diseases (STD) in the region. The studies – most of which were funded by Qatar National Research Fund, also a member of Qatar Foundation – have played a key role in improving the understanding of the epidemiology of these diseases, with several of them being instrumental in helping WHO formulate its public health policy and programmes for the region.

According to Professor Abu-Raddad, achieving WHO collaborating centre status is the fruit of relentless work done by IDEG over the past decade.

This designation allows us to become a formal partner of an international collaborative network carrying out activities in support of WHO’s public health mission and programmes, and allows us (the opportunity) to make a real tangible impact in the region’s fight against infectious diseases.

The centre’s short-term goal is to focus specifically on viral hepatitis, HIV/AIDS and STD. Known as the ‘silent killer’ disease, viral hepatitis is a disease that causes inflammation of the liver leading to an array of complications such as liver cancer and liver cirrhosis.

It is a major public health burden and a leading cause of death globally, a fact that is being emphasised on World Hepatitis Day, observed on 28 July every year. It is also the fifth leading cause of death in the Eastern Mediterranean Region, which is more severely affected by hepatitis than any other region in the world.

July 28 - World Hepatitis Day

With the recent availability of effective treatments, WHO’s global strategy aims to eliminate viral hepatitis by 2030. IDEG aims to help it realise the goal.

The biggest challenge with viral hepatitis is that most people that contract it are unaware of it, which means they are also likely to infect others without realising it.

The first step to reducing the incidence, according to Professor Abu-Raddad, is to identify the carriers. For the past ten years, they have been doing mapping in different countries to facilitate a comprehensive understanding of viral hepatitis in the region and to assess the geographic variation in prevalence and treatment needs. These findings are then used to prioritise testing of heavily affected regions and to formulate localised intervention programmes.

He said that with the Eastern Mediterranean Region being the most severely affected region, there is no doubt that there is a mammoth task ahead. However, they are positive that they will play a key role in supporting WHO in achieving a hepatitis-free world by 2030.

The long-term goal of the centre is to be a resource and reference point for the region’s policymakers to ensure that public health policy and programmes are informed by rigorous science. This region is going through a major demographic transition and difficult economic conditions, explained Professor Abu-Raddad.

Its population is rapidly aging, which means increased healthcare and public health needs. Unfortunately, many governments are unprepared to face these growing challenges. Our long-term goal is to be the centre of excellence for our region, to work with governments to help formulate their public health policy and programmes based on scientific evidence, cost-effectiveness and economic impact analyses.

The centre will also offer students an invaluable opportunity to participate in meaningful practice-based research projects and possibly even be involved with WHO in implementing some of their programmes.

This is very important for us as a college because we believe our role is not just to generate scientific knowledge but also to nurture the generation that will carry the torch forward and become researchers that will benefit Qatar and the wider region.

WHO Regional Director for the Eastern Mediterranean Dr Ahmed Al-Mandhari said that collaborating centres such as IDEG are critical partners in their endeavor to achieve their vision for the region, ‘Vision 2023’, with its goal of ‘Health for All, by All’.

Dr Al-Mandhari commended the high-level political support by the State of Qatar and the farsighted leadership of Qatar Foundation and the Ministry of Public Health, which have made these strategic partnerships and investments for global health possible.