The World Health Organisation (WHO) Regional Director for Africa, Dr Matshidiso Moeti, has said that people with hepatitis-related complications are at a higher risk of developing severe cases of COVID-19.
Moeti declared this in her message to commemorate the World Hepatitis Day 2020, to increase awareness of this public health threat.
World Hepatitis Day, observed on July 28 every year, aims to raise global awareness of hepatitis — a group of infectious diseases known as Hepatitis A, B, C, D, and E — and encourage prevention, diagnosis and treatment.
According to her, people with hepatitis-related complications are at a higher risk of COVID-19 and must continue to receive essential hepatitis prevention and treatment services during the pandemic and beyond.
“With political commitment from governments and partners, backed by financing and integrated using a health system strengthening approach, and with informed and empowered communities, we can achieve a Hepatitis free future.’’
The director said, of the 71 million Africans with chronic viral hepatitis, 300 people sadly lose their lives daily from liver cancer and other complications related to hepatitis B and C infections.
“This year’s theme is “Hep Free Future” highlighting the importance of preventing mother-to-child transmission of hepatitis B and scaling-up prevention, testing and treatment to control hepatitis B and cure hepatitis C.
Moeti said Hepatitis B comprised 85 per cent of the hepatitis burden in the WHO African Region.
According to her, the most vulnerable time for infection is in the first month of life, and this can be prevented with hepatitis B birth-dose vaccination in the first 24 hours of life.
“Achieving at least 90 per cent coverage in the Region, would prevent over 1.5 million new infections and 1.2 million deaths from liver cancer by 2035.
“Hepatitis B can go undetected for years and have devastating consequences. For example, Ansah, a 25-year old Ghanaian woman, was diagnosed with hepatitis B and liver cancer during antenatal care.
“Her baby was protected with hepatitis B birth-dose vaccination administered within 24 hours of birth, but Ansah’s future is uncertain.
“Her family said: “We did not know that the infection could be so silent and the consequences so grave.”
Despite the low cost of the hepatitis B birth-dose vaccine, Moeti said only 13 African countries had introduced it, far short of the target of 25 countries by 2020.
“So far, 15 countries have launched national hepatitis plans, and Rwanda and Uganda have national testing and treatment programmes for hepatitis.
“WHO is working with countries and partners to accelerate action towards a 90 per cent reduction of new hepatitis B and C infections and a 65 per cent reduction of deaths by 2030.
“Achieving these goals requires urgent introduction and scaling-up of hepatitis B birth-dose vaccination and leveraging the HIV and syphilis infrastructure to prevent mother-to-child transmission and ensure mothers have access to testing and treatment.
“I commend the Organisation of African First Ladies, in this regard for advocating triple elimination of mother-to-child transmission of HIV, syphilis and hepatitis B.
“As we battle COVID-19, the threat of further delays to scaling-up hepatitis B birth-dose vaccination and other essential hepatitis services looms large,’’ she said.