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All eyes have been on COVID, but did you know that someone dies from complications related to viral hepatitis every 30 seconds? Africa has been disproportionately affected by the challenges COVID added to a preexisting epidemic.

Awareness days have a dubious impact. If you follow the global health space, you know that there's an awareness day for everything, and that retweeting information about these days, or writing about them, can quickly appear like a cheap and easy way to score some brownie points. 

I don't like writing about awareness days for precisely that reason. Yet, they're necessary. 

Why?

July 28 is World Hepatitis Day, a day meant to highlight the global impact of viral hepatitis, a silent killer. If you're still reeling from the COVID-19 pandemic, which has killed more than six million people across the world, you'd be forgiven for thinking there are more important things to worry about than viral hepatitis right now. 

Yet, viral hepatitis — which comes in five mean types, Hepatitis A, B, C, D, and E — claims the lives of 1.34 million people every year. Someone dies of an illness related to viral hepatitis every 30 seconds. Every year.

Africa is disproportionately affected, as three quarters of all viral hepatitis cases occur in either South Asia or sub-Saharan Africa. Here, we will examine how viral hepatitis impacts Africa, and how the COVID-19 pandemic — the global health problem that has taken precedence over all else in recent times — has made fighting viral hepatitis in Africa even more challenging. 

Viral Hepatitis in Africa: What Do You need to Know?

"Hepatitis" simply refers to liver inflammation (See also: 3 things you should definitely know about hepatitis). Many factors can cause this, but viruses are the most common cause, and 6 types of viral hepatitis have a serious global health impact. Some of these viral hepatitis types are spread through sexual contact or other bodily fluids, while othrs can spread through contaminated drinking water.

In Africa:

  • More than 70 million people are currently living with viral hepatitis. 
  • Approximately 200,000 people die of complications related to viral hepatitis in Africa each year. 
  • Many of these deaths would be preventable with better healthcare, as 90 percent of patients do not receive the care they need, and which can even be curative.
  • Hepatitis B and Hepatitis C are the most common types of viral hepatitis in Africa, and prospective parents should know that hepatitis C can easily be passed from mother to child during childbirth.
  • Hepatitis D, which needs Hepatitis B to replicate, is most common in West Africa.

How Has the COVID Pandemic Affected Africans Living with Viral Hepatitis?

While it is important to note that Africa is a huge continent home to 54 internationally recognized countries, which all face different challenges, an important research paper has highlighted the main challenges that Africa as a continent has faced at the intersection of viral hepatitis and COVID

The main things to be aware of this World Hepatitis Day are that:

  • Chronic liver disease is a big risk factor for serious COVID, including dying from COVID. 
  • The pandemic disrupted the ability for people to get tested for viral hepatitis while still in the asymptomatic stage, which is an important means of preventing future complications by ensuring timely treatment. In Tanzania and Gambia, for example, hepatitis clinics were closed so that their staff could be sent to help out with efforts to treat COVID patients.
  • Patients living with viral hepatitis similarly had their care and medication disrupted as a result.
  • Vaccination efforts against viral hepatitis were disrupted as a result of COVID-19.
  • Some African counties, including Burkina Faso, lacked access to medication for viral hepatitis during the early stages of the pandemic owing to travel cancelations resulting from restrictions.

Why Can't Hepatitis Wait?

The situation highlights the fact that everything, and everyone, is interconnected. While the COVID pandemic, which emerged in an entirely different part of the world, caused worldwide lockdowns and disrupted medical systems everywhere, other important global health problems were largely forgotten about. 

Yet the lack of care and diagnosis that directly resulted from these disruptions directly contributed to increases deaths from viral hepatitis, which can be treated successfully with adequate care. The irony is that viral hepatitis has a higher death toll than COVID, especially in middle and low income countries where that care simply isn't accessible to everyone. 

Viral hepatitis isn't new. As such, it isn't drawing as much global attention. Yet, it's still claiming lives at an alarming rate, in Africa and elsewhere. That has to stop.

This year, the message of World Hepatitis Day is simple. Hepatitis can't wait. This complex health crisis, which includes Hepatitis A, Hepatitis B, Hepatitis C, Hepatitis D, and Hepatitis E, can be brought under control and even eradicated with the right steps. The World Health Organization and its member countries have committed to eliminating 90 percent of all new viral hepatitis cases by 2030, as well as reducing hepatitis-related deaths by 65 percent. With the right action, that dream is achievable. 

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