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#justB Storyteller David’s Advocacy Journey

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

David is living with hepatitis B, and he spoke about empathy and mental health as a panelist at the World Hepatitis Summit (WHS) 2024

Another World Hepatitis Summit (WHS) has come and gone, this time in Lisbon, Portugal. I previously attended the 2022 summit in Geneva and spoke during the Youth Can’t-Wait and Closing Sessions. I would like to give my thanks to the wonderful people at the World Hepatitis Alliance, for allowing me to travel and speak at this year’s summit as well.  

I spoke during a newly created session called Hepatitis and Mental Health. During this session, a video I made in collaboration with the WHA last year, was played before I spoke. It is part of the WHA “I can’t wait” series of videos, which showcase patient advocates and their journeys with patient advocacy and why they can’t wait for a world without hepatitis. I, the dedicated and powerful Shabana Begum of the UK, and the courageous and vocal Shaibu Issa of Tanzania are the first to be featured in these videos.  

I can’t wait… these words evoke dire urgency. During this summit, I felt and heard the urgency from many of the speakers, advocates, and attendees. From the opening session, it was emphasized that the world DOES have the tools and resources but DOES NOT have the required amount of political and social will to eliminate viral hepatitis by 2030. The need for person-centered and culturally appropriate approaches as being critically important was also highlighted.  

These declarations capture the moment the viral hepatitis community is currently in. Time is slipping away by the day and the people who suffer from viral hepatitis, hepatitis B and D included, cannot continue to wait in silence as they have been. Deaths from hepatitis B are still alarmingly high each year. These statistics highlight a problem of stigma and discrimination that presents differently depending on where you are located or who you are talking to. Stigma and discrimination can cause mental health problems and prevent millions of people living with hepatitis from finding their voice, feeling comfortable sharing their story, and being diagnosed. Without solving this multi-faceted problem, the goal of eliminating viral hepatitis by 2030 is just an empty platitude. 

Having the privilege and platform to speak about hepatitis and mental health during this summit was very important to me. My struggles with hepatitis B and my mental health struggles are interconnected in so many ways. That is also true for so many other patients who have struggled with poor mental health. Long before I started my patient advocacy journey, I felt voiceless. Long before I ever talked publicly about my mental health struggles, I felt voiceless.  

Empathy is a crucial piece of the puzzle for how we give those who feel voiceless the greatest opportunity to find their voice, regardless of where they are from or the stigmas that surround them. We must be empathetic when creating policies, action plans, and declarations. So many millions of people are left undiagnosed, untreated, and voiceless because of fear of the societal, associative, and personal stigma that they will go through if they seek out a diagnosis or talk about their status openly. There is still so much misinformation surrounding hepatitis and the only feasible way to fight this is by amplifying the voices of those who speak the truth about hepatitis with empathy, cultural sensitivity and appropriate.  

The symptoms of poor mental health exacerbate this feeling of voicelessness. After five years of advocacy, over a decade of therapy, and five years of being on a consistent treatment for my hepatitis B, I still struggle with clinical depression and anxiety. I will live every day with depression and anxiety in varying degrees for the foreseeable future. My mental health started to trend downward late last year. I had to find the strength to start an antidepressant medication and give it an honest try. I can happily say, that today and every day after will mark the longest I’ve been on an antidepressant (almost six months now), and I can report that it is helping me manage my mental health and to continue managing my hepatitis.  

I say all of this to highlight the connection between times in my life where I have actively been taking steps to manage my mental health and my hepatitis B. These periods overlap with each other, and they have one important thing in common. Empathy for myself and others. This is one of the strongest coping tools I have to manage my hepatitis B and my mental health. Patient health outcomes are linked to the state of their mental health and the tools and resources they are given to help manage it.  

After attending this World Hepatitis Summit, I feel a calling to act with more urgency. This isn’t an easy task. For me, it’s one of the most challenging aspects of advocacy. I have such a natural tendency to self-talk in very judgmental and negative terms. I sometimes think I’m a terrible person for not doing more and taking more time to learn how to become a more capable and productive advocate. I ask myself why I’m not having more conversations, learning about others’ perspectives, and potentially teaching someone or setting them on a path of changing their minds about hepatitis and mental health.

The desire to grow more as an advocate and connect more with others is within me, but the key to taking more action is to meet myself where I am currently and to practice self-empathy. When I speak to myself with empathy, kindness, and encouragement, I am much more likely to grow and make a positive change, even though mental health struggles.   

Most people in the world can relate to or know someone who has struggled with their mental health. This commonality between people can be a powerful tool if wielded with empathy instead of fearmongering and focusing on the most rare, violent, and negative aspects of mental health struggles. These stories fill the public, media, social media, and political discourse and create more layers of stigma (public, associative, self, provider). Changing this narrative will be a monumental undertaking but to use one of my favorite quotes, “The best time to start was yesterday. The next best time is today.” 

CHIPO Partner Highlight: United States Coalition for African Immigrant Health

The Coalition Against Hepatitis for People of African Origin (CHIPO) is a national community coalition that is co-founded and led by the Hepatitis B Foundation and is comprised of organizations and individuals who are interested in addressing the high rates of hepatitis B infection among African communities in the U.S. Over the past year, CHIPO has grown its membership to include over 50 community-based organizations and federal agencies, all of which are working to meet the common goals of raising awareness about hepatitis B among African immigrant communities, and increasing rates of screening, vaccination, and linkage to care. This month, we are excited to highlight the work of one of our newer national partners, the United States Coalition for African Immigrant Health, Inc., (USCAIH) and their Executive Director, Janet Afoakwah. Please enjoy a recent interview with Janet, as she describes her work, including successes and challenges, and the positive impacts she and USCAIH have had through their annual conferences and upcoming plans for expanding their portfolio and mission.

Could you please introduce yourself and your organization?

My name is Janet Afoakwah, and I am now the Executive Director of the United States Coalition for African Immigrant Health (USCAIH), previously known as the United States Conference on African Immigrant Health. USCAIH began as the National African Immigrant Project in 2005, supported by the U.S. Office of Minority Health, which provided a platform for national and regional conferences focused on African immigrant (AI) health. These conferences continue to be held on a yearly basis and attract a broad range of attendees, including federal agencies, academicians, researchers, policy makers, public health officials, students, community organizations, and a variety of other stakeholders. We are very excited because this year, in addition to hosting our annual conferences, we are going to be broadening the scope and focus of our work to include other services.

Could you tell me a little bit about what some of USCAIH’s programs are that specifically address hepatitis and other health concerns in African communities?

As we move forward into 2023 and beyond, USCAIH is going to be working toward achievement of some broader goals, including coalition-building; providing technical support to organizations working with AI communities; offering trainings and support in cultural sensitivity for direct-service organizations, especially those working in the areas of HIV and hepatitis, since this is such a crucial component of engaging with AI communities; organizing and expanding our website with important and relevant resources; collaborating and forming partnerships with like-minded organizations; inviting researchers to share their work with the community via a new podcast format; and providing a database where researchers working on AI health can consolidate their findings for direct use and application within communities. Data and research about African immigrants often are not disaggregated from that about African American and Black populations, so getting a clear picture of the health and health disparities impacting AI communities can often be difficult.

Is USCAIH focused in a specific geographic area or does it have more of a national reach?

Our conferences are both regional and national, and we also try to include researchers and organizations from many countries within Africa itself. The other services that we are hoping to expand will be focused on AI communities within the U.S., but all around the country.

Which countries are primarily represented in the African diaspora that USCAIH serves?

We work with folks from all countries and communities. We have been able to reach some communities a bit more effectively, due to existing relationships that our staff has with community members, but our hope is to eventually reach all AI communities within the U.S.

What are some of the biggest challenges in addressing hepatitis and other health concerns at the community level? How have you worked to overcome these? Are there any additional resources that would be helpful to have?

The biggest missed opportunities are in vaccination and screening for both hepatitis B and liver cancer. This gap is due to a variety of reasons, including general lack of health insurance and lack of funding for supportive programs, as well as inequities in healthcare access in general for many immigrant communities, which contribute to greater health disparities. Another large barrier is the lack of provider knowledge about the high risk of hepatitis B in AI communities.

The best ways to overcome some of these challenges are in the creation and sustainability of programs that are centered on AI communities and are culturally and linguistically competent – this is SO important. Another key element in breaking some of the barriers around cultural humility and especially provider awareness is in establishing partnerships and effective collaborations. Building awareness among trusted community and faith leaders, who in turn can pass this on to community members, is also critical. We have been able to launch and disseminate a podcast that covers health issues affecting AI communities, and we try to feature researchers and guests with lived experience of different health challenges, including hepatitis B, in order to raise awareness, dispel myths and misperceptions, and bring the severity of different health concerns into perspective. We are also working to consolidate resources on our website and to have all partners providing direct services around the country listed on there for easy navigation and connection.

Other more broad-sweeping, policy-level changes that need to happen include making hep B screening recommendations universal for all adults; and improving and centralizing linkage to care systems.

What do you think are some of the biggest barriers in raising awareness and addressing rates of hepatitis screening and linkage to care at the local, state, and federal levels? Do you think more could be done in these spheres to address this problem?

This is a big concern and one of the steps we have recently taken to address this is hosting a roundtable discussion intended to educate healthcare providers and professionals about hepatitis B and how to care for community members who might be living with HBV. Better provider education and linkage to care needs to be the order of the day. Community-based organizations should be supplementing the services that providers are offering. One big important change that can occur is for electronic medical records to include an automatic question about hepatitis B screening for all patients. All of this can be done with additional funding and support from the federal and state levels.

Do you see this issue as being connected to other concerns facing African immigrant communities?

Yes, there are a variety of health concerns that face AI communities in the U.S, many of which require similar approaches of cultural sensitivity and community and provider awareness to address. These include diabetes, heart disease, hypertension, and various forms of cancer.

What are your favorite parts about your job? What got you interested in this work?

I am passionate about hepatitis B and that is what actually got me into public health. I came into this work having previously led an HIV project at another organization. I love every aspect of my work! My favorite moments are in organizing conferences because they move so fast, have many moving parts, and are SO rewarding! These conferences are widely recognized as the premier gathering for discussing AI health – many organizations of all types are interested in presenting and sharing their work. The conference planning is tremendously collaborative and is an all-volunteer effort. Now, as Executive Director, I can see the whole picture of the conferences and the organization as a whole and am so excited to continue to be working on our old and new endeavors. Hosting the podcast has been a great experience as well, and a wonderful tool to interview a variety of people working in AI health, to raise awareness about important health topics like hepatitis B and to amplify the mission of USCAIH.

Any other thoughts or ideas you’d like to share for improving health and closing health disparities among African immigrant communities in the U.S.?

I just want to emphasize the importance of practicing cultural and linguistic competency, and of working in collaboration and establishing relationships with a variety of partners (including community- and faith-based organizations, health centers, and providers) and how important this is for community work. Establishing trust (which requires time and patience) and providing appropriate resources also cannot be overstated. Continuing to host conferences in order to have a space where ideas can be shared and collaborations can happen is key, and hopefully we can all work together to develop and execute a strategic plan of sorts for improving health and eliminating disparities in African immigrant communities in the U.S.

Thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me today and for sharing more about the great work USCAIH has done and will continue into the future!

 Thank you!

CHIPO Partner Highlight: Great Lakes Peace Centre

 The Coalition Against Hepatitis for People of African Origin (CHIPO) is a national community coalition that is co-founded and led by the Hepatitis B Foundation, comprised of organizations and individuals who are interested in addressing the high rates of hepatitis B infection among African communities in the US. Recently, CHIPO has started to expand its reach to communities in Africa and has welcomed new partners from the Continent. This month, in honor of Minority Health Month, we highlight a partnership between CHIPO and Great Lakes Peace Centre (GLPC) in Kasese, Uganda. CHIPO has recently provided GLPC with educational resources that are tailored for African communities, which GLPC is translating into local dialects and will use in a strategy to raise awareness and provide education about hepatitis B, primarily to rural women and youth in Kasese District. A recent interview with Bwambale Arafat, Head of Health and Policy Officer at GLPC, sheds light on some of the significant barriers that impede hepatitis B screening, prevention, and care in Uganda (and much of the African continent) and showcases some of the extraordinary work of GLPC on a host of issues, of which viral hepatitis is just one.

 CHIPO: Can you share a little bit about yourself? What is your connection to hepatitis?

Arafat: I work with the Great Lakes Peace Centre, which is a grassroots, youth-led organization, here in Kasese District, a rural area in Rwenzori region, western Uganda (near the border of the Democratic Republic of Congo, about 400 kilometers from the capital city of Kampala). Most of our work with hepatitis B is focused on raising awareness and providing education about the virus to women and youth in the area, who are the most important people to reach. We also engage in a lot of advocacy initiatives, as well as efforts to lower stigma and discrimination.

My personal connection to hepatitis B is the diagnosis of my uncle with hepatitis B and liver cancer and his death shortly thereafter. There was widespread misconception that he had been bewitched and poisoned by relatives. I have been working to try to dispel some of these myths and provide accurate information ever since. In 2021, I was honored as a World Hepatitis Alliance champion for hepatitis outreach work during COVID-19. I and GLPC are deeply committed to the cause of hepatitis B elimination by the year 2030.

CHIPO: Congratulations on the well-deserved honor! Can you share a bit about the work and goals of your organization?

Arafat: Due to its proximity to the Democratic Republic of Congo, Kasese feels the effects of war and conflict acutely, and the area is quite fragile. Peace and Conflict Resolution is the first of three priority areas for GLPC and is driven forward by the efforts and demographic dividends of young people. Health Promotion and Public Policy is the second priority area, which encompasses awareness and education about hepatitis, HIV/AIDS, malaria, and tuberculosis prevention, screening, and treatment, as well as nutrition assessments, counseling, and support, especially for mothers of children under five years of age. Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene is another topic of top concern, and initiatives in this sector included a hand-washing campaign for COVID-19. The last focus area under the Health Promotion umbrella is adolescent sexual and reproductive health, and especially promotion of education equity for menstruating young women and ending of stigma and discrimination around this, thus keeping young women in school for longer. Social empowerment happens through education, and people can donate to keep girls in school with financial support. The third organizational priority is to focus on climate change – GLPC distributes solar panels through public and private partnerships, as a great step toward sustainability and protecting the planet we share.

 CHIPO: What are some of the biggest barriers to hepatitis screening, prevention, and care in your community?

Arafat: As I mentioned above, the widespread presence of myths and misconceptions about hepatitis B, especially about transmission, is one of the biggest culprits in perpetuating the stigma and discrimination that still dominate the hepatitis B conversation and presents one of the biggest challenges to increasing screening and vaccination. Some ways that we are working to dispel some of these misconceptions are through our social media platforms, which all have huge followings by younger people. However, attitudes are very slow to change, and this is why the involvement of religious and community leaders in spreading accurate information and shifting the narrative around viral hepatitis is so important, and why personal testimonials and connections with people who are living with hepatitis B hold such power.

Other challenges to screening, prevention, management, and treatment of hepatitis B in Kasese include the enormous out-of-pocket costs of diagnosis and testing; the persistent lack of awareness among the general population – primarily lack of information, education, and communication; the lack of logistics and supplies for things like test kits and cold chain storage for vaccines; and the long distances and mountainous topography that make access to health facilities in larger cities difficult. Additionally, funding and resources from the government and other stakeholders remain inadequate, making it difficult to ensure that services will be available when they are needed. The Minister of Health and government of Uganda have created infrastructure to help with vaccination (they have provided 1 million USD for this reason), have recommended universal adult vaccination, and have also waived fees for viral load investigation. However, things like ultrasound scans, complete blood count panels, and other tests to determine when someone would need treatment for hepatitis are not subsidized. The government could also do a great deal more in terms of increasing awareness, investing money into management and care, prioritizing the birth dose of the vaccine to prevent mother-to-child transmission of hepatitis B, and addressing the stigma and discrimination so many living with hepatitis B routinely face.

Many infants also continue to be delivered by traditional birth attendants, who are not trained in preventing mother-to-child transmission of hepatitis B, and knowledge among community health workers in general is very low. There is also inadequate data and surveillance of the disease, and no records of screening, vaccination, or care are kept in the Health Management and Information System. There is a lack of clear guidelines around testing for the medical community and a lack of materials that can help to raise awareness and combat stigma.

We also really need to integrate hepatitis services into those that exist for HIV/AIDS. Machines that are used to test for HIV/AIDS can be recalibrated to also test for hepatitis. Electronic Health Records can be upgraded to include hepatitis B status. As awareness grows, patients can also hold health workers accountable for hepatitis testing, as they do now for HIV and syphilis. This conversation needs to start with the people themselves.

 CHIPO: How are you planning to use CHIPO’s materials and resources over the next year?

Arafat: We have a saying in Kasese: “When you talk in a foreign language, you talk to people’s heads. When you speak in their language, you speak to their hearts.” Our first priority is to translate CHIPO’s flip charts, takeaway cards, and guides for health educators into our local dialects of Lhukonzo and Runyakitara, in order to reach as many community members and stakeholders as possible. We will host four community educational events using the materials and in these events, will focus on hepatitis B overview, causes and prevention, common myths and misconceptions, and unmet needs in this area. These sessions will be moderated by NoHep Champions and Hepatitis Ambassadors, so that the community can hear from people with direct experiences of the disease and their voices can be amplified.

Additionally, we will host NoHep Champion Table Talks, which are informal discussions that will consist of young people living with HBV and pregnant women, who will share stories and build community. These talks will touch upon how people are doing physically, as well as with handling stigma, and will identify needed services, insights which can help to determine future programming and practices. These talks will also emphasize that no one is alone, and that hepatitis B is not a death sentence, but that people with HBV can live long and healthy lives. We will also convene community barazas (gatherings) with local leaders, including social workers, health workers, village health teams, hepatitis ambassadors, local council, and cultural, community, and religious leaders to conduct trainings on delivery of the educational materials. These will provide an opportunity to educate and invite open discussion. We will also hold continuing education courses on hepatitis B for healthcare professionals at health facilities, including community health workers, village health teams, and para-social workers. Finally, we are planning to compose a radio jingle related to hepatitis B that will be heard around the district.

Only 1 in 10 people in Kasese know their hepatitis B status. These materials can go a long way in changing that.

CHIPO: Thank you so much for your valuable insights and for all of the work you are doing! Do you have any final thoughts or messages that you would like to share?

Arafat: I would just like to mention our No Hep Mamas campaign, which we are also implementing for the prevention of mother-to-child transmission of hepatitis B. We are working to bring this campaign to more health facilities, and share this information in prenatal care settings, as stopping the cycle of transmission is truly the best way to eliminate hepatitis B.

CHIPO: Thank you so much again for your time today, Arafat, and we look forward to more inspiring work from you in the future!

Arafat: Thank you very much!

Join Hepatitis Partners for a Twitter Chat on May 19th, #HepTestingDay!

Join HepBUnited, NASTAD, National Viral Hepatitis Roundtable (NVHR) and CDC’s Division of Viral Hepatitis for a Twitter Chat on Hepatitis Testing Day, May 19th at 2 P.M. EDT.  The chat will highlight hepatitis events and allow partner organizations to share their successes, challenges and lessons learned from their efforts, particularly during this unique time. Partners will also highlight innovative strategies for outreach during COVID-19. This twitter chat serves to keep us all informed, raise awareness and share messaging. All are encouraged to join the twitter chat conversation with the hashtag #HepChat20, and to keep partners posted throughout the month about events and messaging with the hashtag #HepAware2020.

Continue reading "Join Hepatitis Partners for a Twitter Chat on May 19th, #HepTestingDay!"

Join a Twitter Chat: National Organizations Share Highlights From Hepatitis Awareness Month and Strategies for Successful Events

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Join Hep B United, the National Viral Hepatitis Roundtable, NASTAD and CDC’s Division of Viral Hepatitis for a Twitter #HepChat at 2 p.m. (EST) Thursday, June 8. The chat will highlight Hepatitis Awareness Month outreach events and allow hepatitis B and C partner organizations to share their successes, challenges and lessons learned from their efforts.

Continue reading "Join a Twitter Chat: National Organizations Share Highlights From Hepatitis Awareness Month and Strategies for Successful Events"

The Annual Hepatitis B Check-up: Facing Mortality and a Missing History

Image by worradmu, courtesy of FreeDigitalPhotos.net.
Image by worradmu, courtesy of FreeDigitalPhotos.net.

For more than 20 years, I have accompanied my daughter to her annual hepatitis B check-up with her liver specialist. She is 22 and does not need me to come, but I always go out of habit and love.

After the appointment, we sit eating lunch and I talk about how lucky she is that her liver has been healthy and her viral load undetectable for many years. Recently, she started testing negative for the hepatitis B surface antigen (HBsAg). However, she has never developed hepatitis B surface antibodies. Her immune system has cleaned house, but has lacked the power to produce enough surface antibodies to show up on lab tests and declare her free of infection.

For the second year in a row, her doctor gave her a hepatitis B vaccine shot, an experiment to see if the injection of HBsAg would spur her immune system to generate enough surface antibodies to register in a lab test. Continue reading "The Annual Hepatitis B Check-up: Facing Mortality and a Missing History"

Growing Older with Hepatitis B: Prevention and Precautions Still Matter

Image courtesy of Ambro at FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Image courtesy of Ambro at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Most people living with chronic hepatitis B today are over age 50, and like their younger counterparts, they need to prevent spreading hepatitis B to their sexual partners, housemates, and neighbors in assisted living facilities.

You’re never too old for safe sex: You may not have to worry about pregnancy any more, but you still need to protect yourself and your partner against sexually transmitted diseases such as hepatitis B. Using a condom (and keeping a barrier between you and potentially infectious body fluids) is essential because many seniors have not been immunized against hepatitis B.

The widespread marketing of erectile dysfunction drugs allows for sex by older men, and thinning and dryness of vaginal tissue in older women may raise their risk of infection during intercourse. Continue reading "Growing Older with Hepatitis B: Prevention and Precautions Still Matter"

Preparing for College, Dating and Disclosing Hepatitis B

Image courtesy of jesadaphorn at FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Image courtesy of jesadaphorn at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

When my daughter, who has chronic hepatitis B, packed for her freshman year of college, I peppered her with warnings about the need for standard precautions and condoms. I suggested wording for a future conversation where she would disclose her infection and negotiate safe sex with a potential partner.

I hoped these verbal dress rehearsals would empower and protect her, especially if that potential boyfriend turned her down. I wanted her to know that any rejection would not be about her or her hepatitis B, it would be about his fears. Continue reading "Preparing for College, Dating and Disclosing Hepatitis B"

Join Hep B United and Watch the Hep B Summit Online!

hepb-united-btnThe Hep B United Summit in Washington D.C., starting Sunday afternoon and running through Monday, July 26 and 27, can be viewed LIVE and in real time on Periscope. Plus, you can follow the conversation on Twitter with #HepBSummit! Continue reading "Join Hep B United and Watch the Hep B Summit Online!"

Webinar on Treatment Options for Liver Cancer: What You Need to Know

 

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Please join the Hepatitis B Foundation’s Liver Cancer Connect program and world-renowned liver disease specialist, Dr. Robert Gish for a webinar on Monday, April 27th 12 noon EDT to learn about liver cancer treatment. How does the stage of the cancer affect treatment? Why are screening and surveillance so important? What are the available treatments and what are the therapies in development? Continue reading "Webinar on Treatment Options for Liver Cancer: What You Need to Know"