Let’s not lose sight of Hepatitis B in the midst of COVID-19 fight

Viral hepatitis, a group of infectious diseases known as hepatitis A, B, C, D, and E, affects millions of people worldwide, causing both acute and chronic liver disease.

Its signs and symptoms may include abdominal pain, dark urine, fever, joint pain, loss of appetite, nausea and vomiting, weakness and fatigue, yellowing of skin and jaundice among others complications.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates that as of 2016, 27 million people (10.5 per cent of all people estimated to be living with hepatitis B) were aware of their infection, while an insignificant number of 4.5 million (16.7 per cent) of those diagnosed, were on treatment.

At the moment, viral hepatitis is the seventh leading cause of mortality worldwide and is highly endemic in Sub-Saharan Africa.

The prevalence of the infection among pregnant women, perhaps, may have prompted the theme for this year’s World Hepatitis Day (WHP); “Hepatitis-free Future, with a focus on prevention of Hepatitis B among mothers and newborns.”

In Ghana, close to five million of the country’s total population suffer from chronic hepatitis B (HBV) and the infection is the second major killer infectious disease after tuberculosis.

Data from the Ghana Health Service (GHS) indicates that the virus is commonly spread among pregnant women through delivery and through exposure to infected blood or body fluids especially from an infected child to an uninfected one during the first five years of life.

Estimates by the GHS show that this year alone, between 92,000 and 147,000 newborns risk exposure to the disease with up to 90 per cent actually ending up with HBV, given that the disease continues to rise among pregnant women in the country.

“Maternal transmission of hepatitis B is the major means for inter-generational spread of the disease and most newborns affected have a high chance of developing chronic hepatitis, of whom, some will develop irreversible liver damage and liver cancer leading to premature death,” a statement by the Director-General, Dr Patrick Kuma-Aboagye had said.

Acting Programme Manager of the National Viral Hepatitis Control Programme of the Ghana Health Service (GHS), Dr Atsu Seake-Kwawu, in an interview had intimated that while immunisation is given to babies six weeks after birth, the administration of birth dose HBV vaccine will be a major game changer in controlling a scourge.

“The birth dose has been proven to be very effective in protecting babies against the virus but unfortunately, we do not have it in the country though we have been pushing for it over the years,” he admitted.

Clearly, HBV is of major public health importance and requires greater attention as much as we devote ourselves to the fight against the global COVID-19 pandemic.

The Ghanaian Times believes deaths that may result from HBV, among other public health threats, per the projections from GHS, may be worst than what we are having to deal with from COVID-19, if we do not accelerate efforts in curbing the risk. 

We therefore join calls for stakeholders to hasten efforts at introducing the birth dose vaccine for newborns to protect them against the virus.

Also, resources must be allocated to increasingly educate, screen and put people on effective treatment for hepatitis B to reduce transmission among the populace as we find novel funding mechanisms to address the high cost of medication.

If there is anything COVID-19 has taught us, it is to be more rational in strengthening our public health systems in a more serious consequential way, which is why, we must not lose sight of HBV as we continue to tackle the coronavirus pandemic.

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