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Photograph: Photo by Steven Depolo, used under CC BY

European countries need to step up testing and treatment programmes for viral hepatitis, which can cause liver disease and affects millions of people in the region, a European health agency said Wednesday.

An estimated 10 million Europeans are believed to live with chronic hepatitis B and C, two of the various hepatitis viruses that cause inflammation of the liver.

A common, largely "silent" disease, it can lead - when chronic - to cirrhosis, liver cancer and death.

However, many people infected with the virus are not aware of the condition as they do not have any symptoms, the Stockholm-based European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) said in a statement ahead of World Hepatitis Day, which falls on Thursday.

ECDC and other partners have set a 2030 target to reduce the global number of hepatitis cases by 90 per cent and to slash mortality rates.

"To eliminate viral hepatitis in Europe, we need to work together to boost testing services, scale up treatment programmes and increase the coverage of prevention interventions to prevent infections in the first place," said Andrea Ammon, ECDC acting director. Vytenis Andriukaitis, European Commissioner for Health and Food Safety, noted that "hepatitis is also 'silent' in the way that it affects the most vulnerable groups of our society."

Hepatitis B and C are spread through contact with infected body fluids or blood products. Children born to mothers with hepatitis B or C as well as sex partners of people with hepatitis also risk infection.

While vaccines are available for hepatitis B, none is available for hepatitis C, which is commonly transmitted by people who inject drugs and who share contaminated needles. Transmission can also occur in unsterile conditions in connection with tattooing or acupuncture.

Some cases are also linked to migrants from countries with a high prevalence of viral hepatitis, the ECDC said.

Italy and Romania were estimated to have the highest number of chronic hepatitis B cases in the region, each country has about 1 million cases. They were followed by Poland, Germany, France, Britain, Bulgaria and Spain with between 550,000 to 300,000 cases. Italy, Romania and Spain were estimated to have the highest numbers of hepatitis C cases. The ECDC groups the 28-member European Union and the non-EU countries of Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein.

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