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91 million Africans infected with deadliest hepatitis – WHO

A scorecard of the World Health Organisation has revealed that more than 91 million Africans live with Hepatitis B or C, which are the deadliest strains of the virus.

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The Viral Hepatitis Scorecard 2021 looks at data from the African region but focuses on Hepatitis B and C, both of which cause liver cirrhosis and cancer. It found that in 19 countries, more than eight percent of the population is infected with Hepatitis B, while in 18 countries, more than one percent of the population lives with Hepatitis C.

In 2020, the African region accounted for 26 percent of the global burden for Hepatitis B and C and 125,000 associated deaths.

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The scorecard showed that around 70 percent of Hepatitis B infections worldwide occur in Africa.

“It can take decades after infection from the virus before an individual starts manifesting symptoms. Thus, what is particularly worrying for the future is that the region accounts for 70 percent of the global Hepatitis B cases found among children younger than 5 years, with 4.5 million African children infected. Currently, 33 countries have a Hepatitis B prevalence of more than one percent among children younger than 5 years, which is a small improvement from 40 countries in 2019,” it noted.

WHO Regional Director for Africa, Dr. Matshidiso Moeti, said hepatitis was a silent epidemic, but this scorecard is sounding an alarm for the region and the world to hear.

“We must do better and stop this disease from stealing away our children’s future. There is a safe and effective vaccine that offers nearly 100 percent protection against Hepatitis B, one of the deadliest strains of the virus. We must ensure that all African children are vaccinated within 24 hours of their birth and are followed up with two or more doses of the vaccine,” Moeti said.

The scorecard found that coverage for routine childhood vaccination against Hepatitis B is 72 percent for the region, well below the global target of 90 percent needed to ensure that the virus is no longer a public health menace.

“The number of countries with more than 90 percent coverage has increased from 23 in 2019 to 27 in 2021. Additionally, while the birth dose vaccine is administered in only 14 African countries, at an overall coverage of 10 percent, it is an increase from 11 countries in 2019.

Hepatitis can be spread through contaminated blood products, and much more progress is needed to ensure blood safety. In the African region, only 80 percent of blood donations are screened with quality assurance, while five percent of syringes are re-used. Only six syringes are distributed per injecting drug user, compared to the global annual target of 200.

“Diagnosis and treatment rates are alarmingly low, the scorecard shows. In 2021, only an estimated two percent of persons infected with Hepatitis B were diagnosed, and only 0.1 percent were treated. For Hepatitis C, an estimated 5per cent of infected persons were diagnosed, with close to 0 percent treated,” the WHO said.

Dr. Moeti added that “To turn the tide, hepatitis services must move out of specialized clinics to decentralized and integrated facilities where most Africans still seek care. More primary health care workers need to be trained to diagnose and treat the virus.

“While there has been progress in making hepatitis medications affordable, still more needs to be done.”

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