Despite that viral hepatitis is one of the leading causes of infectious disease – related deaths globally, the level of knowledge of the disease remains low amongst Nigerians.
The World Health Organization (WHO), estimates that more than 325 million people live with viral hepatitis B and C, with an estimated 2.8 million people infected in 2018 alone.
According to the Federal Ministry of Health, Nigeria is one of the countries with the highest burden of viral hepatitis with a prevalence of 11 per cent of Hepatitis B and 2.2 per cent of Hepatitis C.
Speaking at a press briefing, in commemoration of this year’s World Hepatitis Day, themed: “Hepatitis Free Future,” in Abuja, the president, Hepatitis Zero Nigeria Commission, Dr. Mike Omotosho, expressed worry that despite that hepatitis is more deadly than COVID 19, a lot of people did not know their status.
He said as a consequence, most of the 18 million Nigerians estimated to be living with viral hepatitis did not know that they were infected, placing them at greater risk for severe, even fatal complications from the disease and increasing the likelihood that they would spread the virus to others.
According to him, viral hepatitis is a major cause of liver cirrhosis and liver cancer in Nigeria.
Omotosho also worried that most people living with hepatitis lacked access to testing and vaccination which are preventive measures, and also lacked access to treatment.
“In Nigeria, there is a strong relationship between HBV infection and various forms of Chronic Liver Disease (CLD), including chronic hepatitis, liver cirrhosis and hepatocellular carcinoma,” said Omotosho.
He identified the overall risk factors in the country to include local circumcision, and scarification on the body, tribal marks, surgical procedures, body piercing, delivery at home and receiving blood transfusion.
“As scaring as COVID 19, there is actually another disease that kills more people than COVID; hepatitis actually kills more people than COVID. Almost 500 million people globally surfer hepatitis and out of these numbers, 1.4 million die every year globally, meaning that about 4000 people die from hepatitis and it’s related illness daily.Hepatitis is a silent killer.”
The president however stated that unlike COVID, hepatitis has vaccine – even though not all, and unlike COVID, hepatitis has cure – even though not all eventually result in permanent cure.
According to him, eliminating hepatitis by 2030 as contained in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs,) would require enduring innovation, better access to medicines, and improved health services.
Also, the WHO regional director for Africa, Dr Matshidiso Moeti, has said that the threat of further delays to scaling-up hepatitis B birth-dose vaccination and other essential hepatitis services looms large due to the COVID- 19 pandemic.
He said, “Of the 71 million Africans with chronic viral hepatitis, 300 people sadly lose their lives daily from liver cancer and other complications related to hepatitis B and C infections.
“This year’s theme is “Hep Free Future” highlighting the importance of preventing mother-to-child transmission of hepatitis B and scaling-up prevention, testing and treatment to control hepatitis B and cure hepatitis C.”
According to her, hepatitis B comprises 85 per cent of the hepatitis burden in the WHO African region. She informed that the most vulnerable time for infection is in the first month of life, adding that this can be prevented with hepatitis B birth-dose vaccination in the first 24 hours of life.
“Achieving at least 90 per cent coverage in the region, would prevent over 1.5 million new infections and 1.2 million deaths from liver cancer by 2035,” said Moeti.
Meanwhile, the federal government has expressed its commitment to reducing chronic hepatitis B virus infection to less than two per cent in children below five years, as it launched a roadmap to set up state Viral Hepatitis Programme.
According to the Minister of Health, Dr. Osagie Ehanire, the country is endemic for both viral hepatitis B and C.
“In 2018, Nigeria conducted a National AIDS Indicator and Impact Survey which showed a prevalence of 8.1 per cent for hepatitis B (HBV) and 1.1per cent for hepatitis C (HCV).”
He said that by the picture from the survey, it could be estimated that about 20 million people were chronically infected.
The minister, however, disclosed that Nigeria recognises the importance of vaccination as a critical intervention to eliminate HBV infection by 2030, hence the nation was one of the first African countries to introduce a birth dose of HBV vaccine in 2004.
He expressed optimism that working in alignment with the regional resolution, the country would reduce chronic hepatitis B virus infection to less than two per cent in children under five years by the end of 2020.
Ehanire also disclosed that the nation has made progress in the area of hepatitis B birth dose vaccination through domestic contribution to financing vaccination and expand access to services.