Hepatitis a bigger threat than Aids: WHO

DYING of viral hepatitis is becoming a bigger threat than dying of Aids, malaria or tuberculosis, a leading international health body, World Health Organisation (WHO), has said.

BY PHYLLIS MBANJE

Every year, more than 200 000 people in Africa are dying from viral hepatitis B and C-related liver disease complications, including cirrhosis and liver cancer. Sixty million people in the WHO Africa region were living with chronic hepatitis B infection in 2015.

More than 4,8 million of these are children under five years old. A further 10 million are infected with hepatitis C, most likely due to unsafe injection practices within health facilities or by communities.

The Zimbabwean government, in partnership with WHO and other various stakeholders, is working towards developing a National Viral Hepatitis Strategic plan (2019-2022) to bring the rising epidemic under control in the country.

During a stakeholder consultative meeting on development of the national strategic plan towards ending viral hepatitis in Zimbabwe last month, it was revealed that while mortality from HIV, tuberculosis, and malaria was on the decline, mortality caused by viral hepatitis was on the rise.

This necessitated an urgent need to reverse the alarming trend, through high-impact cost-effective interventions such as hepatitis B vaccinations, which can score an early win for prevention.

Meanwhile, in a bid to efficiently examine hepatitis prevalence and response, WHO, on Friday last week launched a scorecard — the first to track progress against viral hepatitis in sub-Saharan Africa.

The new scorecard, to be presented at the first African hepatitis summit to be held in Kampala, Uganda, from June 18 to 20, shows that only three of the 47 countries were on track to eliminating the disease that affects one in 15 people in the region.

“This analysis is the first to track each country in the region and to assess progress towards the goal of saving the lives of more than two million Africans who may develop progressive hepatitis B or C liver disease in the next decade if countries fail to ramp up their efforts,” Matshidiso Moeti, WHO regional director for Africa, said.

The analysis shows that 28 countries had developed a national hepatitis strategic plan for viral hepatitis.

However, most were still in draft form, with only 13 officially published and disseminated. WHO has been a major partner in the regional response with policy development and provision of technical and financial support as well as capacity building for a co-ordinated regional response.

Only 15% (7/47) of the countries are leading prevention efforts, with national coverage of both Hepatitis B birth dose and childhood pentavalent vaccination exceeding 90%. There are major gaps in hepatitis testing and treatment, with less than eight countries providing subsidised testing and treatment for viral hepatitis.

Uganda has started free nationwide hepatitis B treatment, and Rwanda is providing free treatment for both hepatitis B and C. These two countries are championing the regional response and are on track to reach the 2020 framework targets for testing and community awareness.

Administration of the hepatitis B vaccination at birth and in early infancy is the most effective way to halt the transmission of the virus.

In spite of the low cost of birth dose vaccination — less than US$0,20 per child — only 11 countries in the region are following this protocol.

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