This vaccine at birth can save thousands of lives

Hepatitis B is a silent killer and one of the leading causes of liver cancer

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  • 5% of South Africans are estimated to have chronic hepatitis B.
  • Testing for hepatitis B is difficult to access and few people in South Africa know their status.
  • Hepatitis B can be curbed by vaccinating infants at birth and other targeted interventions, experts say.

The hepatitis B virus is estimated to cause about 820,000 deaths a year globally. It is one of the leading causes of liver cancer. One in 20 people in South Africa is infected with hepatitis B, yet few people know about or have been tested for the virus.

During a media briefing on Friday, organised by the Gastroenterology and Hepatology Association of Sub-Saharan Africa (GHASSA), a panel of experts stressed the need for urgent interventions to eliminate hepatitis.

There are clear solutions, the experts said: increase awareness, increase access to testing, and prevent childhood transmission through birth-dose vaccination and screening and treating pregnant women.

“We are way overdue on bringing hepatitis out of the shadows and into the light,” said Professor Mark Sonderup, from the University of Cape Town’s (UCT) academic hospital at Groote Schuur.

In South Africa, an estimated 2.8 million people have chronic hepatitis B. Liver cancer caused by hepatitis B is on the increase in Africa and worldwide. Besides cancer, the virus can cause serious liver disease.

Hepatitis B is transmitted through bodily fluids, including semen and blood. Antiretroviral treatment for chronic hepatitis B is available but only 22% of cases are diagnosed.

An estimated 76,000 children in South Africa under the age of five have hepatitis B. Children infected with hepatitis B are more likely to develop a chronic infection.

Children infect each other: the virus multiplies in the body without presenting symptoms and a drop of blood shared through play between children can transfer the virus.

“They walk around like ticking timebombs, spreading infections,” said Dr Neliswa Gogela, liver disease specialist at Groote Schuur. Hepatitis B is 100 times more infectious than HIV, said Gogela.

Children born in South Africa receive a hepatitis B vaccine at six, ten, and 14 weeks old. If a vaccine dose was given at birth, it would cut out the first six weeks during which a child could become infected. Birth-dose vaccines are government policy but it has not yet been implemented. Other African countries like Namibia have introduced birth-dose vaccines.

The virus can also be transmitted from mother to child during and after birth. Pregnant women should be screened as part of prenatal and antenatal healthcare services, said Professor Wendy Spearman, head of Hepatology at UCT. Those eligible for treatment should receive antiretrovirals to prevent transmission of the virus to the child.

Hepatitis B is a silent killer, said Professor Mashiko Sechedi, head of gastroenterology at Groote Schuur. The virus stays in the body and only presents symptoms when the disease is at an advanced stage. It can cause multifocal liver cancer which renders the liver inoperable. “In South Africa, we’re seeing young patients presenting with advanced disease,” said Sechedi.

Professor Eduard Jonas, a surgeon at Groote Schuur, said that half of the patients in Sub-Saharan Africa who are diagnosed with liver cancer die within two and a half months of diagnosis. Late diagnosis and lack of treatment capacity make liver cancer particularly deadly in Southern Africa, he said.

Screening and testing for hepatitis are not easily accessible, said Professor Geoff Dusheiko, from Kings College in London. Whereas anyone wanting to do an HIV test can go to any government clinic and receive a point-of-care rapid test, they cannot do so for hepatitis B.

Rapid tests for hepatitis B are available but have not been rolled out by the government, so the only way to do a hepatitis test through public health facilities is to take blood, which is sent to a laboratory for testing.

While HIV, malaria and TB have attracted significant attention and funding, hepatitis has not. “We need people living with hepatitis B demanding access to treatment,” said Spearman.

TOPICS:  Health

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