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Tackling Hepatitis B in Africa: The First Nigerian Hepatitis Summit

This is a guest blog post by Danjuma Adda, MPH, Executive Director of Chargo Care Trust, a non-profit dedicated to helping hepatitis patients in Nigeria. 

In 2016, the World Health Organization (WHO) set targets for the elimination of viral hepatitis as a public health threat by 2030 and provided a global health sector strategy (GHHS) on viral hepatitis for 2016–2021 that has since been adopted and endorsed by 194 countries. Nigeria joined the league of other nations to sign up to the GHSS and was among the few countries in Africa to develop firm goals towards the elimination of viral hepatitis. The goals were mapped out in a comprehensive framework that includes the National Viral Hepatitis Strategic Plan 2016-2020, National Policy for the Control of Viral Hepatitis, and National Guidelines for the Care and Treatment of Viral Hepatitis. An estimated 26 million Nigerians are living with viral hepatitis. A national hepatitis control program was created and a Technical Working Group for the Control of Viral Hepatitis was set up to help address the issues.

Despite these achievements, there has been very little financial assistance or investments by the national government towards the elimination of hepatitis. Gaps like low awareness fueled by myths and misconceptions, lack of available information on hepatitis, poor systems of health, high cost of diagnostic testing and out of pocket expenses for viral hepatitis treatment, low capacity of health care providers, and the proliferation of substandard treatment centres across Nigeria poses a challenge to the elimination goal of hepatitis in the country.

The First Nigerian Hepatitis Summit

To spur action towards hepatitis elimination in Nigeria, hepatitis patient groups and civil society networks organized the first ever Nigeria Hepatitis Summit in December 2018. The groups were led by Danjuma Adda, Executive Director of Chargo Care Trust. The goals of the summit were to:

1. Improve health seeking behavior among Nigerians through disease awareness and, as more people become aware of the disease, help them discover their status and encourage them to seek treatment as appropriate;

2. Increase local and domestic health financing, increase domestic, local responses, and allocate needed funds towards the elimination of the disease as more state governments establish state actions plans;

3. Increase engagement and involvement of the private sector in accelerating the elimination goal of viral hepatitis in Nigeria and;

4. Increase the capacity of health care professionals and improve health care systems to deliver quality viral hepatitis cascade of care in line with WHO and national guidelines.

The summit was held on December 3-4 in Abuja, Federal Capital Territory. Over 200 participants from diverse sectors attended including the:

* WHO’s Nigerian office

* State Directors of Public Health across Ministries of Health

* State HIV/AIDS Program Managers-Hepatitis is domiciled in the State HIV/AIDS programs at both national and state levels.

* Civil society and NGOs from 26 states in Nigeria

* Academia including the Society of Gastroenterologist and Hepatologist in Nigeria (SOGHIN)

* Private sector representatives

* Professional Medical associations

The Society of Gastroenterologist and Hepatologist (SOGHIN) led the technical faculty. SOGHIN made up 70% of the speakers. Other Speakers included: World Health Organization (WHO); World Hepatitis Alliance (WHA); Clinton Health Access Initiative (CHAI); National Primary Health Care Development Agency; Harm Reduction Association of Nigeria; and Representatives of States Ministries of Health.

Outcomes from the Summit

* Increased advocacy at state ministries of health to ensure state governments prioritize hepatitis cascade of care

* The engagement of private institutions to invest in the hepatitis cascade of care

* Efforts to enhance collaboration towards improving hepatitis cascade of care between civil society organizations and state governments

* Increased domestic financing is needed by state governments towards the elimination of viral hepatitis in Nigeria

* The World Hepatitis Alliance (WHA) UK is partnering with CSOs/Patient groups to build advocacy efforts for hepatitis C financing. To this end, WHA is supporting the development of a hepatitis C financing model for the engagement of state governments and private sector players to invest in elimination projects across Nigeria.

Looking Towards the Future

For the first time, government representatives from the state and national ministry of health, patient representatives, and civil society members came together to talk about the burden of viral hepatitis with the common goal of finding solutions to the pandemic. It was evident during the meeting that the lack of commitment and political will by the national government may cause Nigeria to miss the target goal of eliminating viral hepatitis if strong actions are not taken. Viral hepatitis must be recognized as a disease of public health importance in the country.

At the moment, the viral hepatitis cascade of care remains beyond the reach of the majority of Nigerians, fueling the spread of fake and substandard practices and the proliferation of treatment centres around the nation.

Almost everyone in Nigeria is affected by the scourge of viral hepatitis. Brothers, friends, and relatives have been lost to this disease. The conspiracy of silence across the nation and lack of strong will to address the pandemic remains a puzzle that we all need to solve.

Nigeria has what it takes in terms of financial and human resources to be the regional leader in the drive towards the elimination of viral hepatitis in Africa. What it lacks is the political will and commitment of government at all levels and the interest of private sector players to invest in the elimination of viral hepatitis in Nigeria. At the moment, other African countries are overtaking Nigeria on the path towards elimination by launching ambitious plans for their citizens.

If only we can get the attention and support of the private sector players and business moguls in Nigeria, the country will be on track towards the elimination of this disease and surpass the WHO target. If some of the countries wealthiest individuals contributed just a million dollars each to a National Hepatitis Elimination Project, Nigeria would see profound health benefits for the entire nation.

In order to attract support from partners around the world including pharmaceutical companies, the government of Nigeria must make a bold commitment and investment in addressing the challenge of viral hepatitis for its citizens.

The government of Nigeria must take the first step by making the financial commitment towards provisions for prevention, testing and treatment programs in the country by launching a pragmatic and ambitious Viral Hepatitis Elimination Project with clear targets to reach each year on prevention and treatment, including harm reduction strategies.

Where is Hepatitis D? High Prevalence of Hepatitis B/D Coinfection in Central Africa

ResearchWhile hepatitis B is known to be highly endemic to sub-Saharan Africa and is estimated to affect 5-20% of the general population, the burden of hepatitis D, a dangerous coinfection of hepatitis B, has largely been left undescribed. Since the virus’s discovery 40 years ago, Africa has faced structural barriers that have contributed to the ongoing prevalence of the virus in this region. Widespread instability, under-resourced health systems, and poor surveillance have contributed to inadequate research and a lack of understanding about the health burden of hepatitis D on hepatitis B patients, particularly in Central Africa.

New data, however, reveals pockets of hepatitis B/D coinfection in this region, particularly in countries such as Cameroon, Central African Republic and Gabon. In a recently published study of nearly 2,000 hepatitis B infected blood samples from 2010-2016 in Cameroon, 46.7% tested positive for hepatitis D antibodies, a marker of past or current hepatitis D coinfection. Another study of 233 chronic hepatitis B carriers from 2008-2009 found a 17.6% positivity for hepatitis D antibodies. Other small studies from the Central African Republic have revealed 68.2% prevalence in hepatitis B patients, 50% coinfection in liver cancer patients and an 18.8% coinfection in hepatitis B infected pregnant women. Not only are new studies revealing evidence that there are groups at higher risk for hepatitis D, but a 2008 study on 124 community members in Gabon found 66% of them had markers for hepatitis D, proving this virus can also be circulating in the general population. Globally, hepatitis D is thought to affect about 5-10% of hepatitis B patients, making Central Africa an area of extremely high prevalence.

A diagnosis with hepatitis B and D can increase the risk for cirrhosis and liver cancer by nearly three times, and with only one available treatment, the future for coinfected patients if often uncertain. Although hepatitis B and D can be safely prevented by completing the hepatitis B vaccine series, which is available in many countries throughout Africa, the birth dose of the hepatitis B vaccine is often not given within the recommended 24 hours of birth. Lack of awareness, availability, and high cost mean many infants will not begin the vaccine series until 6 weeks of age, creating a window for exposure to hepatitis B. Greater than 95% of babies infected with hepatitis B will go on to develop chronic hepatitis B infections, leaving them susceptible to a future hepatitis D infection. Spread the same way as hepatitis B, through direct contact with infected blood and sexual fluids, hepatitis D can be contracted through unsterile medical and dental equipment and procedures, blood transfusions, shared razors and unprotected sex. Although the severity of disease varies greatly by hepatitis D genotype, coinfection always requires expert management by a knowledgeable liver specialist, which are often difficult to find.

As an increasing number of studies continue to describe the widespread endemicity of hepatitis B/D coinfection and its public health burden, researchers and the Hepatitis Delta International Network are calling on the World Health Organization (WHO) to declare hepatitis D a “threat” in this region in order to promote increased priority and awareness. Addressing hepatitis B/D coinfection prevention and management will be complex and require a multi-pronged approach through methods such as government prioritization, increased funding for health systems, hepatitis B vaccination awareness programs, birth dose prioritization, better sterilization techniques in hospitals, clinics, and barbers, and public awareness of the disease.

For more information about hepatitis B/D coinfection and the Hepatitis Delta Connect program, please visit www.hepdconnect.org or email us at connect@hepdconnect.org. Hepatitis Delta Connect seeks to provide information, resources and support for hepatitis B/D patients and their families through its website, social media, fact sheets, webinars and hepatitis D liver specialist directory.

WHO’s New HBV Guidelines to Help Combat Africa’s Growing Hepatitis B Crisis

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The World Health Organization (WHO) will release their first management guidelines for hepatitis B virus (HBV) by the end of 2014. For the first time, the guidelines will be geared towards resource-constrained countries, where the disease burden is high but resources are lacking. The new guidelines will be particularly welcome in African nations, where the incidence of viral hepatitis is increasing.

The overall scope of the World Health Organization’s new management guidelines for hepatitis B will include prevention, screening, and treatment of chronic hepatitis B and will be geared towards resource-constrained countries. Thus, WHO’s guidelines will be valuable for countries where the disease burden is high but resources are lacking.

The WHO Global Hepatitis Programme established a Guideline Development Group of external experts in 2013, which includes Hepatitis B Foundation (HBF) executive director Joan Block, and is co-chaired by Dr. Brian McMahon, who also serves on the HBF Scientific and Medical Advisory Board.

The new WHO guidelines will be particularly welcome news to African nations, where the incidence of viral hepatitis is increasing.

According to the WHO Global Hepatitis Survey 2013, the prevalence of chronic hepatitis B virus (HBV) infection on the African continent is up to 8% of the general population, and 75% of the population may have had prior exposure to the virus.

Yet, only two of the African member states that responded to the WHO Survey have a written national strategy to prevent and control viral hepatitis.

In Ghana, where the incidence of viral hepatitis is increasing, the sero-prevalence rate is high among blood donors (6.7%), pregnant women (6.5%) and school
aged children (15.6%), according to Mr. Theobald Owusu-Ansah, president of the Theobald Hepatitis B Foundation and the Hepatitis B Coalition in Ghana.

Compounding the lack of public health plans and national investment are factors common in many low-resource countries: limited awareness of hepatitis B among the public and providers, poor access to care, expensive therapies, and few liver specialists.

Global agencies are beginning to recognize the urgency of the situation. In addition to the WHO, the World Health Assembly is taking steps to combat the growing crisis. The Assembly adopted a second resolution on viral hepatitis in May 2014 that advises governments on how to prioritize and coordinate public health efforts.

But governments cannot tackle these problems alone, Mr. Owusu-Ansah believes. He urges governments to partner with commercial and nonprofit organizations to mobilize much-needed expertise and resources.

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