Dr Matshidiso Moeti, the World Health Organisation (WHO) Regional Director for Africa, has urged pharmaceutical companies and partners to reduce the cost of Hepatitis B and C diagnosis and medicines to help sufferers.
She made the call at a news conference in Abuja to commemorate World Hepatitis Day, observed annually on July 28 to raise global awareness on the viral disease.
The theme for this year’s celebration is “Find the Missing Millions”.
Hepatitis is a viral infection that attacks the liver and can cause both acute and chronic diseases, commonly transmitted from mother to child during birth, as well as through contact with blood or other body fluids.
Represented by Dr Clement Peter, the Officer-in-Charge (OIC), WHO Nigeria, Moeti said Hepatitis is a silent killer because most people do not know the symptoms and often do not get diagnosed until late stages of the disease.
She said there are five common types of Hepatitis, namely Hepatitis A, B, C, D and E.
According to her, more than 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”.
The regional director called on the research community to collectively explore ways to simplify testing, treatment and promote innovation toward finding cure for Hepatitis B and a vaccine for Hepatitis C.
She urged civil society groups and people living with viral hepatitis to play central role in raising community and political awareness about the deadly virus.
She said “in spite of availability of diagnostic tools and treatment, less than one in 10 of the 71 million people with Hepatitis B and C in Africa have access to testing and more than 200,000 die each year due to complications like end stage liver cirrhosis and liver cancer.”
She added that the 2019 theme of the celebration was a timely reminder that the disease could be eliminated by 2030 with adequate resources and strong political commitment.
She disclosed that in June 2019, WHO developed the first Hepatitis scorecard to track progress across Africa.
Moeti said the highest burden of Hepatitis B infection in children under five years was seen in countries without Hepatitis B birth-dose vaccination.
According to her, testing and treatment as a public health approach remains the most neglected aspect of the response.
She noted that funding Hepatitis testing and treatment services as part of Universal Health Coverage (UHC) was a cost effective investment.
She, however, commended Rwanda and Uganda for providing free access to hepatitis testing and treatment.
She reiterated WHO’s commitment to continue to support and collaborate with member states in the fight to eliminate the disease, stressing that “countries should invest in Hepatitis B vaccination for newborns and integrate interventions into their health system. This include building on existing laboratory capacities for Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) and Tuberculosis (TB), embedding hepatitis surveillance in national health information system and securing supplies of affordable medicines.”
The regional director also commended Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance for supporting hepatitis B birth-dose vaccination and the Global Fund for providing hepatitis C care for people receiving HIV therapy.
She said “we also salute Egypt for the recent proposal to support hepatitis testing and treatment for one million people across 14 African countries.”