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A Valuable Tool Against Chronic Hepatitis B Goes Unused in Many Developing Countries

Image courtesy of tuelekza at FreeDigitalPhotos.net.
Image courtesy of tuelekza at FreeDigitalPhotos.net.

By Christine Kukka

A critical tool that stops the spread of nearly half of all new chronic hepatitis B infections is still unavailable in many developing countries – the hepatitis B vaccine birth dose.

When the hepatitis B vaccine is immediately administered to a baby born to a hepatitis B-infected mother, it stops the terrible spread of hepatitis B to a new generation.

But this vaccine remains unavailable and financially out-of-reach for many parents in rural areas of Africa, Asia and other regions.

“In Ghana, even if parents know where to find the vaccine, the cost sometimes deters them from accessing it,” said Theobald Owusu-Ansah of the Hepatitis B Foundation of Ghana.   “And when midwives help mothers deliver their babies in their homes, they do not have the vaccine with them because it must be refrigerated.”

While a global childhood immunization program, sponsored by the global vaccine alliance GAVI, has saved millions of lives, the hepatitis B birth dose remains a critical, missing piece of its otherwise successful global immunization strategy.

Image courtesy of africa at FreeDigitalPhotos.net.
Image courtesy of africa at FreeDigitalPhotos.net.

To effectively prevent mother-to-child (perinatal) transmission of hepatitis B, the single-dose hepatitis B vaccine must be administered within 12 to 24* hours of birth. In about 90 percent of cases, this vaccine effectively prevents infection, unless the mother’s viral load is extremely high.**

Today, GAVI funds and promotes the pentavalent vaccine, which prevents five diseases including hepatitis B, for nearly all children in developing countries. But here’s the catch, the earliest the first dose of the pentavalent vaccine can be administered is six weeks of age because it contains the diphtheria vaccine. This is far too late to prevent perinatal hepatitis B infection.

GAVI’s pentavalent vaccine makes economic and medical sense. One vaccine that prevents several diseases lowers manufacturing and shipping costs and requires fewer injections. Indeed, widespread immunization with GAVI’s pentavalent vaccine in 73 developing countries has prevented 7 million deaths, but it doesn’t prevent chronic hepatitis B acquired at birth.

The World Health Organization (WHO) has made eradication of hepatitis B by 2030 a major goal, but it is unattainable unless perinatal infection is prevented.

Without GAVI’s financing or promotion of the hepatitis B birth dose, many developing countries have done little to promote the birth dose, despite their high rates of hepatitis B. According to the WHO, in 2015, 8.4 million babies were born in African countries that did not provide the birth dose of the hepatitis B vaccine.

In addition to a lack of political will on the part of GAVI and these countries, there are other barriers to distributing the hepatitis B birth vaccine. As Owusu-Ansah explained, about one-third of births in his native Ghana  and about 45 percent of all births in Africa take place without a healthcare worker or midwife present.

Volunteers from the Rann India Foundation teach villagers about hepatitis B testing and prevention in India.
Volunteers from the Rann India Foundation teach villagers about hepatitis B testing and prevention in India.

Suren Surender, founder and president of the Rann Bhoomi Foundation, which educates rural villagers in India about hepatitis B prevention, added that even when healthcare workers are present at childbirths, “there is a lack of knowledge about birth dose administration and there is also a lack of community awareness about the benefits of getting the birth dose.”

Having a global leader like GAVI lend financial and strategic support for the hepatitis B birth vaccine would go far to chip away at these high perinatal infection rates in rural regions. In 2013, GAVI and the global vaccine alliance explored funding the hepatitis B birth dose as part of its Vaccine Investment Strategy (VIS),  but officials decided not to fund it.

According to a GAVI spokeswoman, the key deterrent was implementation — getting the refrigerated vaccine birth dose to rural areas within hours of a child’s birth – rather than cost.

“Many births in GAVI-supported countries do occur outside health facilities,” she noted. “Indeed, coverage of hepatitis B birth dose in many countries delivering this intervention is low. Ultimately, the Vaccine Investment Strategy analysis and consultations recommended that (GAVI) should focus its limited resources on other high-impact vaccines at the time.”

However, research suggests the hepatitis B vaccine may be effective for several days or weeks in warm climates without refrigeration, which could increase their use in rural regions if there was more financial and political support.

In 2018, GAVI will reconsider potential support for the hepatitis B birth dose when it develops a new Vaccine Investment Strategy, with a decision expected in late 2018.

GAVI’s support for the birth vaccine is needed immediately. Only GAVI has the resources and political clout to help countries realign their immunization policies to allow the next generation of children born to hepatitis B-infected parents to live without liver disease.

*North American medical guidelines recommend the first hepatitis B vaccine dose be administered within 12 hours of birth, while WHO recommends the vaccine be given within 24 hours of birth.

**The addition of a dose of HBIG (hepatitis B antibodies) along with the vaccine raises the prevention rate a few percentage points. However, the vaccine alone is highly effective.

A Hero Takes the Fight Against Hepatitis B to Rural Ghana

A street scene in Ghana. Photo by Ebenezer Akakpo.
A street scene in Ghana. Photo by Ebenezer Akakpo.

By Christine Kukka

The HIV/AIDS epidemic, ebola and malaria have infected and killed millions in Sub-Saharan Africa , but another infection, more silent and insidious, has also destroyed millions of African lives yet has received little attention from the global community—hepatitis B.

A recent article in The Lancet medical journal estimates that between 5 and 20 percent of the 1 billion Africans in this region have been infected with hepatitis B and 5 percent are chronically infected.

The region lacks the healthcare workers and resources to educate, screen and immunize people for hepatitis B, and there are few medical centers or drugs available to treat those infected. In a cruel twist of fate, many people find out about their hepatitis B when they attempt to donate blood.

A road in northern Ghana. Photo by Ebenezer Akakpo.
A road in northern Ghana. Photo by Ebenezer Akakpo.

“It was on one fateful day in 2007, during my second year in college, when I decided to donate blood to help save the lives of pregnant mothers who undergo complications during deliveries,” wrote one young man who now works with the Hepatitis Foundation of Ghana. “Everything was OK, until the lab technician called out my name and told me they cannot let me complete the processes because my blood was ‘incompatible.’ He later handed me a fact sheet on hepatitis and requested that I read it thoroughly,” he recalled. “I felt so confused and didn’t know what to do. I thought I would be referred to see a physician for counseling but no, nothing. Not knowing what to do, I decided to educate myself.”

He went online and read several articles about hepatitis B. He learned the importance of avoiding alcohol and smokin and eating healthy foods. “In 2009, I took another test that revealed I was in the chronic stage of the infection,” he recalled. “Even the health professionals at that facility couldn’t explain what that really meant. I was confused and didn’t know if I was going to die or not.”

A year later, he had another test that showed the infection was not currently causing any liver damage. “I live in a community and country where the level of awareness about hepatitis is very low,” he explained. “The majority of the people are ignorant about the situation. I have lost some family members as a result of the disease.”

His research led him to the foundation in Ghana. “I no longer feel left alone. I now feel I have someone whom I could call upon for any information or seek clarification concerning my situation. Not only me, but for my community too,” he wrote.

The foundation, established by Theobald Owusu-Ansah, is attempting to educate people about hepatitis B to stop an infection that is killing thousands in Ghana. In Africa, hepatitis B is commonly spread during childbirth, through re-used syringes due to scarce medical resources and sexually. A lack of knowledge about hepatitis B and how it is spread, especially among healthcare workers and midwives, has also helped spread the disease.

Owusu-Ansah established the foundation in 2007 after four of his family members died from hepatitis B. He realized he had to take action to educate people about this deadly infection and get better treatment for people living with hepatitis B. Here is his story about a young woman diagnosed while attending nursing school.

Theobald Owusu-Ansah, president of the Hepatitis Foundation of Ghana
Theobald Owusu-Ansah, president of the Hepatitis Foundation of Ghana

“Initially, someone had put her on some herbal preparations and told her they would cure her ailment after she was first diagnosed with hepatitis B,” he recalled. Owusu-Ansah spent hours educating her about hepatitis B and she went for tests, which revealed she had liver damage. She was referred to a physician who prescribed the antiviral tenofovir (Viread) and recommended regular monitoring. After several months of treatment, her liver was healthy and her viral load was undetectable.

Years passed, she married and became pregnant. Osusu-Ansah reminded her that her babies would be protected against hepatitis B if they immediately received the first dose of the hepatitis B vaccine and HBIG within 12 hours of birth.

But things went wrong. She had stopped taking tenofovir. Her midwife gave her an herbal remedy for hepatitis B and told her the vaccine would be enough to protect the baby. It wasn’t, the baby became infected. The mother was devastated.

“Her story is not so different from many others’ experiences in some parts of Ghana,” he explained. “The unavailability of HBIG and the vaccine is challenging, and even when they are available, very few can afford them.”

In Ghana, and many other regions of Africa, the only vaccines available for free are combination (pentavalent) vaccines that contain vaccines for hepatitis B, diphtheria and other diseases. While economical, these combination vaccines cannot be administered until a baby is at least six weeks old, which is too late to prevent mother-to-child infection.

To break the infection cycle, a single dose (monovalent) hepatitis B vaccine must be administered within 12 hours of birth.

“I believe something can be done about this,” said Owusu-Ansah. “With government support, we need to expand our education campaigns to cover rural areas and take the message of hope to their doorsteps.”

For more information about the Hepatitis Foundation of Ghana, visit its website or email theobald2003@yahoo.com.

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


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.

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

‘Think Again’ About Hepatitis – World Hepatitis Day Events in Ghana

imagesTheobald Owusu-Ansah of the Theobald Hepatitis B Foundation works tirelessly to raise the profile of hepatitis B in Ghana, where the HBV prevalence is approximately 30% in blood donors. Through collaboration with others, and heightening awareness with Ghanaian celebrities, Theobald and others were able to raise viral hepatitis awareness, and provide free screening and HBV vaccination during their World Hepatitis Day event this year. Read his account below and check out Theobald and the work he and his foundation are doing at the www.theobaldhepb.org or find THBF on Facebook

Viral hepatitis is the leading cause of liver cancer, which is the second most common cause of cancer deaths in Africa. On World Hepatitis Day, we urged the government to take actions ASAP to improve hepatitis awareness, monitoring, prevention and treatment.
 ASAP is a blue print framework for Global action, developed by the WHO to guide national government on the effective ways to prevent and control the transmission of viral hepatitis. This framework has four axes:

1.  Awareness raising, partnership promotion and resource mobilization,
2.  Scientific evidence that drives policies and actions,
3.  Access to immunization and information to prevent transmission,
4.  Provision of screening, care and treatment.

Thousands of Ghanaians live with viral hepatitis. About a third of Ghanaians living with viral hepatitis are unaware of their status and are not receiving care and treatment for the condition. It is estimated that hepatitis B kills over 1 million people each year, and an estimated 1 in 12 persons are currently infected and have to face life with chronic liver disease.

Ghana belongs to one of the areas where the prevalence of chronic HBV infection is high (≥8%), and that of hepatitis C is from 5-10%. There is high prevalence in approximately 30% among blood donors.
 In the year ending 2010, the incidence of viral hepatitis in Ghana was 43/100,000 population, with 102 deaths, which represents a 30% increase as compared to the year 2006 incidence of 30/100,000 population. (Source: www.theobaldhepb.org)

Ghana is rated a high-risk country for hepatitis B & C with between 10 and 15 percent prevalence rate. Out of every 100 Ghanaians, 13 may test positive for hepatitis B, which is far more prevalent than HIV/AIDS.

On the 20th July 2014, Celebrities in Ghana united to raise funds to support free Hepatitis B screening and vaccination. The program was under the theme “Celebrities Car Wash”.  Celebrities including Okyeame Kwame, Ghana Rap Doctor, former national black stars captain Stephen Appiah, Ghanaian actor Van Vicker and others volunteered to wash public cars for a fee to raise funds to support the programme.

The staff of Theobald Hepatitis B Foundation, Okyeame Kwame Foundation and other medical officials joined the celebrities for the car washing fundraising event. Members of the public took advantage of the celebrities’ car wash to bring their cars to be washed by their favorite’s celebrities. Celebrities expressed their interest in becoming viral hepatitis ambassadors in Ghana.

The event showed that you don’t need a big bank account to be able to make a difference, but with a bit of vision, one can create awareness.

On that day, we are calling on the government to develop and implement coordinated national action plans to fight viral hepatitis. The Theobald Hepatitis B Foundation in collaboration with the Hepatitis Coalition of Ghana, Okyeame Kwame Foundation together with MDS Lancet Laboratories, Roche and Ridge Hospital RPD on Saturday 26th July, 2014, offered free hepatitis B screening and vaccination to hundreds of people at James Town – Mantse Abgona in Accra. Out of 359 people screened, 49 people tested positive and they received counseling on what to do and what not to do, in terms of treatments and other biochemical tests they needed to undergo.

The Rapper observed that the youth turned out for the screening this year and expressed appreciation for the turnout. “I am really glad to see most of the young people come for the screening. This is to say that the youth is giving attention to health and this also indicates that we are moving in the right direction as a people,” says Okyeame Kwame.

The president of the Theobald Hepatitis B Foundation, Mr. Theobald Owusu Ansah delivered his speech for the occasion on the theme: “HEPATITIS: THINK AGAIN”, calling on the government to give much attention to Hepatitis B.

Thank you to all World Hepatitis Day supporters, sponsors and the media who volunteered their time, supplies, and/or funds to support this year’s events, and raising the profile of viral hepatitis in Ghana.


World Hepatitis Day in Ghana

Ghanians lined up for a viral hepatitis screening at last year's World Hepatitis Day event in Tamale, Ghana (Northern Region)

HBF is pleased to share World Hepatitis Day plans of our friend Theobald Owusu-Ansah of the Theobald Hepatitis B Foundation in Ghana. The Foundation is also a voting member of the World Hepatitis Alliance. 

On July 28th, 2013, The Theobald Hepatitis B Foundation and the Hepatitis Coalition of Ghana will join the World with one voice to celebrate World Hepatitis Day in Sunyani at Victoria Park. In attendance will be the Chiefs, members of Parliament, District Chief Executives, Municipal Chief Executives, Assembly Members and all the Opinion Leaders of the Region.

The Theobald Hepatitis B Foundation is a non-profit organization whose main aim is to educate and create awareness of hepatitis B and C to the general public, ranging from the causes, and symptoms of viral hepatitis, to preventive measures.

On World Hepatitis Day, the activities will start with an early morning Float with music and dance throughout the principal streets of Sunyani, along with the members and volunteers of the Foundation and the Coalition distributing educational materials to the crowds. These leaflets, posters, banners and stickers are part of the ongoing media blast that will draw the public’s attention to problem of chronic hepatitis B among the people of Ghana.

Free screening and hepatitis B vaccinations will be ongoing throughout the day’s activities. Resource persons will be delivering their messages and educating the general public about viral hepatitis. It is important that the people learn and understand whether or not they are positive or negative for viral hepatitis, and if they are positive, what is next.

The Delegation of the Government and other health care professionals will educate the public on Viral Hepatitis Policies and the way forward. Dieticians will also take the general public through the kind of food and diet one needs to eat, and the importance of avoiding alcohol, in order to defuse the public cry of the cost of prevention and treatment of hepatitis B.

Participating organizations will then take the opportunity to appeal for funds from the government officials and the Chiefs of the region present, in order to enable us to successfully organize our last programme of the year.

At the end of the event, the public will be provided with advice, and directed to seek medical information from qualified health professionals, in order to avoid falling into wrong hands of those trying to sell false cures for those with hepatitis B.

Please join us for our World Hepatitis Day activities in Victoria Park if you are in Sunyani, Ghana.

Theobald Owusu Ansah
Theobald Hepatitis B Foundation
P.O. Box GP 21325 Accra-Ghana:

Phone: 00233-20-8269214
Theobald Hepatitis B Foundation website