More than 30 per cent of the population in Uganda who are infected with Hepatitis B are now aware of their status and can access comprehensive treatment services, including free medication, said a new scorecard to track progress against the viral infection on the continent.
This is the first time an African country has been able to attain this feat and to surpass the 2020 target of 20 per cent set up by the World Health Organisation (WHO).
It is the expectation of the WHO that by 2020, some five million people would have received treatment for chronic Hepatitis B and the number of new cases would have dropped to 30 per cent from those witnessed in 2015.
With investments of around $3 million a year, Uganda, from 2015, embarked on a massive, free hepatitis B screening programme, alongside widespread community mobilization and awareness-raising actions.
Till date, more than four million people have been screened – major progress for the East African nation, according to the WHO.
Hepatitis B is a viral infection that attacks the liver and can cause both acute and chronic disease. The virus is transmitted through contact with the blood or other body fluids of an infected person. Hepatitis C also attacks the liver and has similar symptoms to Hepatitis B, but often spreads only through blood-to-blood contact.
An estimated 257 million people are living with hepatitis B virus infection. In 2015, hepatitis B resulted in 887,000 deaths, mostly from complications, including cirrhosis and hepatocellular carcinoma.
In Africa, the disease is claiming the lives of an estimated 550 people each day. Meanwhile, only one in 10 infants in Africa receives the Hepatitis B vaccine at birth, despite its low cost (less than $0.20 per child).
The scorecard launched to track progress against the viral infection on the continent has shown that only three of the 47 countries are on track to eliminate the disease.
According to the WHO, even though most countries have Hepatitis B and C care at tertiary and specialist centres, eliminating the disease demands a public health and decentralisation approach.
Uganda and Rwanda have, however, made progress in this area.
“Only Rwanda (Hepatitis C) and Uganda (Hepatitis B) have started free nationwide screening as a decentralised service, and are on track to reach the 2020 target for screening and community awareness,” said the WHO.
In Uganda, there is a high prevalence rate of chronic hepatitis B, as more than 6% of the population is infected.
“Uganda has superb lessons to share, and we support these important exchanges as they are helping to build evidence-based policies and promoting partnerships for more concerted action against viral hepatitis across the region,” said Dr Matshidiso Moeti, WHO Regional Director for Africa.
Kenneth Kabagambe, who is the founder of Uganda’s National Organization for People Living with Hepatitis B, is proud of Uganda’s work so far against the disease but said that more needs to be done.
“African nations must fund domestic efforts to prevent the spread of both hepatitis B and C. Patients are really concerned about this. They want action,” he said.
“We also need all African governments to swiftly start work on their own action plans at home, and we need far more action on awareness raising, as you simply cannot prevent something you know nothing about.”
“You can live a full, dignified life with Hepatitis B, but the most important thing is prevention, especially vaccination in newborns. For adults, testing, linking to care, education and treatment as needed are crucial – as there is no cure, treatment is often lifelong,” he added.