Every year, the international community observes the World Hepatitis Day. It is a day usually set aside to create public awareness and spread relevant information about viral hepatitis. This disease usually causes inflammation of the liver tissues, chronic liver diseases, liver cancer and death without necessarily manifesting any weighty symptoms. However, the commonly visible symptoms include, but not limited to, poor appetite, fever, tiredness, vomiting, yellow skin and eye among others.
This disease, which poses a burden 10 times larger than the HIV epidemic, is caused by a virus known as viral hepatitis, and there are several types which include Hepatitis A,B, C, D and E. However, the ones with the most extensive impact on public health are Hepatitis B and C, as they are usually transmitted through blood, contaminated food and water as well as through other body fluids.
According to the World Health Organisation, WHO, viral hepatitis is the seventh leading cause of death globally. A silent killer, hepatitis responsible for about 1.4 million deaths annually. Sadly, out of the every 300 million people infected, 90 percent of them do not know their status. Little wonder then that nine out of every 10 infected persons have never been tested nor do they have access to any form of treatment for the ailment. And only few persons are sufficiently aware that they can undergo screening to ascertain their hepatitis status in less than 15 minutes at nearby health facilities.
It is therefore against this backdrop of lack of awareness and poor access to testing and treatment that it is necessary for all and sundry, particularly government and non-governmental organisations, to further increase the tempo of awareness about the disease among the citizenry, particularly on prevention strategies, treatment methods and how the disease spreads.
However, one major challenge in treating hepatitis is that is very expensive, but we believe that any responsible and responsive government that takes the health of its citizens seriously can come to the aid of the down-trodden and ordinary citizens infected, not only to have access to treatment, but to get the treatment at highly subsidized cost. By so doing, the prevalence of the disease will be controlled as well as prevented through availability of cost effective medicine. Also, the government can as a matter of urgency develop a national strategic plan to serve not only as a roadmap, but help in scaling up domestic funding and providing testing and treatment facilities leveraging on the existing health infrastructure for HIV and other infectious diseases.
Another worrying challenge is that of manpower shortage, which can be a reason for the rising incidence of the disease in the country. It is laughable that fewer than 100 hepathologists and gastroenterologists are all Nigeria has at the moment to grapple with the growing number of those diagnosed with the disease who need to be attended to by specialists in the shortest possible time to contain the infection and stop patients’ condition from degenerating.
Thus, there is the need for the training of more health professionals, particularly at the primary health care level, so that they can detect people with the symptoms earlier and refer them to the proper treatment channels. This will help in reducing the burden on the tertiary health facilities.
The fight to roll back the heavy toll of this disease requires concerted effort. Government can make a serious statement in this regard by including hepatitis in the National Health Insurance Scheme (NHIS) so that those signed on to the scheme can easily access both preventive care and treatment. The federal government should also consider utilising the ongoing Nigeria Aids Indicator and Impact Survey (NAIIS) to determine viral hepatitis burden in the country.
As a newspaper, we urge health workers, non-governmental bodies, civil society groups and people living with viral hepatitis to redouble their efforts in the campaigns to rid the world of hepatitis through raising awareness and promoting testing and treatment of the disease, while researchers work towards simplifying testing and treatment procedures, and also strive towards finding a cure for Hepatitis B infection and a vaccine for Hepatitis C. Also, people should cultivate the habit of regular medical checks, especially for a silent killer disease like hepatitis.
It is only through such continuous and sustained process that the world, and Nigeria in particular, can be hepatitis-free. The fight should not start and end with the yearly ritual of World Hepatitis Day celebration alone.