The World Health Organisation has called on countries to take advantage of the recent reduction in the cost of diagnosing and treating viral hepatitis so as to eliminate the disease globally.
This call was made in a press statement released by the UN health agency on Friday ahead of the World Hepatitis Day.
The World Hepatitis Day, observed every July 28, is aimed at raising global awareness on hepatitis.
Viral hepatitis is the inflammation of the liver tissue. There are five groups of the disease, A, B, C, D and E. The disease is a silent killer because most people do not know the symptoms and often do not get diagnosed until late stages of the disease.
Over 95 per cent of hepatitis-related deaths are caused by chronic hepatitis B and C infections, while hepatitis A and E rarely cause life-threatening illness. Hepatitis D is an additional infection occurring in people living with hepatitis B.
For this year’s campaign, WHO is urging all countries and partners to focus on the elimination of the disease with the theme “invest in eliminating of hepatitis”.
Funding for hepatitis
According to a new WHO study published in Lancet Global Health, investing $6 billion (2.2 billion) per year on eliminating hepatitis in 67 low and middle-income countries would avert 4.5 million premature deaths by 2030 and more than 26 million deaths beyond that target date.
Nigeria is one of the 67 countries with a high burden of hepatitis B and C.
In Nigeria, there are no official statistics of the total number of people affected by hepatitis B and C.
However, WHO said Nigeria has a high burden of viral hepatitis B and C at a prevalence rate of 11.2 per cent and 2.0 per cent respectively.
The study found out that a total of $58.7 billion is needed to eliminate viral hepatitis as a public health threat in the 67 countries by 2030.
This means reducing new hepatitis infection by 90 per cent and deaths by 65 per cent.
WHO Director-General, Tedros Ghebreyesus, said about 80 per cent of people living with hepatitis cannot get the services they need to prevent, test for and treat the disease.
He called for bold political leadership, with investments to match elimination of the disease globally.
“We call on all countries to integrate services for hepatitis into benefit packages as part of their journey towards universal health coverage. By investing in diagnostics test and medicines for treating hepatitis B and C, countries can save lives and reduce cost related to long-term care of cirrhosis and liver cancer that result from untreated hepatitis,” he said.
While some countries like Egypt, India, Pakistan among others are beginning to make strategic moves to end the disease by offering free testing and treatment for Both Hepatitis B and C, Nigeria is still lagging behind as testing is unavailable at some health centres especially in the rural areas.
In places where a diagnosis is available, the lack of knowledge about the disease and the high cost of diagnosis and treatment have made the services unattainable for many Nigerians.
A major cause of the spread of the disease in Nigeria stems from lack of knowledge about the disease, poor health-seeking behaviour as most Nigerians do not do medical checks, delivering babies at home and circumcision by unqualified hands, among others.
The disease is vaccine-preventable and the Nigerian government has included the vaccine as part of the immunisation schedule for children (National Programme on Immunisation (NPI), since 2004. Unfortunately, most children still miss out on the vaccination due to low immunisation coverage.
Most adults are also unaware that they can be vaccinated. In cases where the adults are aware, the cost of vaccination is high, thereby discouraging most people.
Another challenge is that the vaccines are only available for adults in some secondary and tertiary health facilities. This means most of the people in rural areas cannot benefit from it.
According to WHO, Viral hepatitis B and C affects 325 million people worldwide causing 1.4 million deaths a year.
It is estimated that 257 million people are living with hepatitis B infection, of which only 27 million (10.5 per cent) knew their infection status in 2016. Also, 1.1 million people newly developed chronic hepatitis B infection.
WHO also estimated that 71 million people were living with chronic hepatitis C infection in 2015, of which only 13.1 million people knew about their status in 2017.
It is the second major ‘infectious disease’ killer, after tuberculosis, and nine times more people are infected with hepatitis than HIV.
Hepatitis is preventable, treatable and in the case of hepatitis C, curable. However, over 80 per cent of the people living with the disease are not aware they have the disease and are thereby unable to treat/manage it.