By Christine Kukka
India has one of the highest hepatitis B infection rates in the world. An estimated 40 percent of all hepatitis B deaths worldwide occur in India each year, and about 3 percent of its 1.25 billion residents – about 40 million — are chronically infected.
This liver disease wrecks medical and emotional havoc in India. People diagnosed with hepatitis B struggle to attend schools, advance professionally, and even marry due to the ignorance and stigma surrounding this infection.
Like many countries, India’s government is struggling to find resources to screen, immunize, and treat the millions of people affected by hepatitis B. But some people, including Surender Kumar and Sandeep Godara of New Delhi, are not waiting for the government to eradicate hepatitis B.
The two men have created a nonprofit organization called Rann Bhoomi Foundation and enlisted support from various organizations and pharmaceutical companies to raise awareness about hepatitis B in some of the poorest slums and rural regions of India. Increasingly, advocates like Kumar and their grassroots army of volunteers and staff are needed to combat hepatitis B globally.Government initiatives to screen people for hepatitis B, immunize those at risk, and infected people into treatment have been woefully under-funded. Public health campaigns need resources, vaccines, and the ability to screen people—especially pregnant women to make sure their newborns are immediately immunized at birth–to prevent a new generation of hepatitis B infections.
These campaigns need medical supplies and staff, but they also require knowledge about hepatitis B, compassion and an understanding of local customs to be effective. “I found out in 2010 that I was infected,” Kumar, a 34-year-old human resources executive, explained.
His brother had tried to donate blood at work and was told he was infected. He told his family about the results and encouraged them to be tested. Kumar and his mother discovered they too were infected. “On that same day, I decided to raise awareness about this silent killer in rural as well as urban areas,” he said.
“There is little awareness among people about this disease in rural areas of India as individuals often do not feel sick for many years,” Kumar explained. “I knew we needed a mass awareness program to teach people how to prevent this.”
Their campaign provides education, screening and immunization to people during village meetings, special events and cultural programs in 120 villages. “This helps us create a database of all the people in the area, we divide the screened people into two groups, one group that tests positive for hepatitis B and other with a negative result,” he said.
They sponsor immunization campaigns in collaboration with government programs and use donations from pharmaceutical companies for all who test negative for the hepatitis B surface antigen (HBsAg), which indicates they are not currently infected. They refer infected people to the local government hospital for treatment and monitoring. As part of the campaign, the initiative trains local peer educators who continue to raise awareness about hepatitis B after Kumar’s initial education campaign.
The need for this work is critical in India, and at first glance this appears to be an impossible task given the lack of awareness about how hepatitis B is spread and prevented and the enormity of the need. Despite the insurmountable odds, Kumar is intent on working to “defeat” hepatitis B in his country.
Instead of waiting for change, Kumar and Godara are hepatitis B heroes working to save lives and raise awareness. You can contact him by email at:email@example.com
For another look at how people in India are fighting stigma and discrimination against people with hepatitis B, view Bollywood star Amitabh Bachchan’s video here.