By Asmau Ahmad
The World Health Organisation (WHO) said no fewer than 91 million Africans are currently living with hepatitis, with around 125,000 hepatitis-related deaths occurring in Africa.
Dr Matshidiso Moeti, WHO Regional Director for Africa, said this on Friday in her message to commemorate 2023 World Hepatitis Day with the theme, “One Life, One Liver.”
Moeti said the theme sought to emphasise the link between viral hepatitis infection and liver inflammation that is, liver injury and damage and the broader issues of liver health and primary health care.
According to her, 1.2 million new hepatitis infections were detected in 2019 alone and that the majority of the population’s young and active members die from the disease.
She said that hepatitis was a viral infection that primarily affects the liver, causing inflammation and potentially leading to more severe conditions such as liver cirrhosis and liver cancer.
Moeti said that most common types in Africa included hepatitis B and C, which could be transmitted through contaminated blood, unprotected sexual activity, or from mother to child during childbirth.
According to her, infection with the hepatitis B virus is preventable by vaccination, while doctors can now successfully treat hepatitis C, caused by the hepatitis C virus, with antiviral drugs.
She said that hepatitis causes the breakdown of the liver’s normal structure, which prevents the liver from working correctly.
“Hepatitis B is commonly transmitted from mother to child during birth and delivery.
“Hepatitis B is also spread through contact with blood or other body fluids during sex with an infected partner, unsafe injections, or exposures to sharp instruments.
“Hepatitis C is spread through contact with the blood of an infected person by unscreened blood transfusions, sharing needles, and unsafe sexual practices that lead to direct exposure to blood,” she said.
According to her, WHO supports regional and national efforts to eliminate viral hepatitis by 2030 by providing clear guidance for decentralised and simplified person-centred prevention, testing and treatment of viral hepatitis.
She said the support also included eliminating hepatitis B through birth dose vaccination (the day of birth or the day after).
Moeti said that a lot still needed to be done to reduce hepatitis-related deaths and infections.
“Despite the availability of diagnostic tools and effective treatment, more than 90 per cent of people living with hepatitis in Africa do not receive the care they needed.
“And less than 10 per cent of the population has access to testing and treatment,” she said.
According to her, this leads to progressive advanced liver disease, devastating financial burden, emotional distress and stigma.
“Testing and treatment, as a public health approach, remains the most neglected aspect of the response.
“The highest burden of hepatitis B infection in children below 5 years of age is seen in countries without hepatitis B vaccination at birth. Immunisation, thus, is an important component in the fight against hepatitis,” she said.
Moeti said that all must make services available through strong primary health care services increasingly funded through domestic resources.
“Testing and treatment interventions must be part of the essential package of health services delivered through integrated primary health care that addresses the needs of individuals of all ages.
“We must scale up hepatitis B immunisation coverage to reach the globally agreed target of 90 per cent. Therefore, I urge all countries to work to introduce the Hepatitis birth dose.