By Winniecynthia Awuor

Over 91 million Africans live with Hepatitis B or C, the deadliest strains of the virus for which testing and treatment remain beyond reach, a World Health Organization (WHO) scorecard shows.

The viral hepatitis scorecard 2021 looks at data from the African region focusing on Hepatitis B and C causing liver cirrhosis and cancer. The scorecard found that in 19 countries, more than 8% of the population is infected with hepatitis B, while in 18 countries, over 1% of the population lives with hepatitis C.

In 2020, the African region accounted for 26% of the global burden for Hepatitis B and 125,000 associated deaths.

As per the findings, approximately 70% of Hepatitis B infections worldwide occur in Africa. The virus can take decades before an individual start manifesting its symptoms. Thus, it is worrying for the future that the region accounts for 70% of the global hepatitis cases found among children younger than 5 years with 4.5 million African children infected. Today, 33 countries have a hepatitis B prevalence of more than 1% among children below five years, which is a small improvement from 40 countries in 2019.

“Hepatitis has been called the silent epidemic, but this scorecard is sounding an alarm for the region and the world to hear,” said Dr. Matshidiso Moeti, WHO Regional Director for Africa during an interview with the Brazzaville news yesterday.

“We must do better and stop this disease from stealing away our children’s future. There is a safe and effective vaccine that offers nearly 100% protection against Hepatitis B. We must ensure that all African children are vaccinated within 24 hours of their birth and are followed up with two or more doses of the vaccine.”

The scorecard findings showed that coverage for routine childhood vaccination against hepatitis B is 72% for Africa, below the global target of 90% needed to ensure the virus is no longer a public health threat. The number of countries which have reached the target of 90% coverage has increased from 23 in 2019 to 27 in 2021. In addition, the birth dose is administered in only 14 countries, at an overall coverage of 10%, an increase from 11 in 2019.

Additionally, the scorecard showed that hepatitis can be transmitted through contaminated blood products hence the need for much more progress to ensure blood safety. In the African region, only 80% of blood donations are screened with quality assurance, while 5% of syringes are re-used. Only six syringes are distributed per injecting drug user, compared to the global annual target of 200.

According to the scorecard, diagnosis and treatment rates are alarmingly low. In 2021, only an estimated 2% of persons infected by hepatitis B were diagnosed and only 0.1% were treated. For hepatitis C, an estimated 5% of infected persons were diagnosed, with close to 0% being treated.

This year’s world hepatitis day bears the theme Bringing Hepatitis Care Closer to You. It is a call to action for countries to rapidly improve access to services to prevent, diagnose, and treat all strains of hepatitis.

To make a much-needed difference and fast-track the elimination targets, countries must consider the hepatitis threat a priority and bring hepatitis care closer to their communities by increasing domestic funding for the elimination of tuberculosis, HIV, and sexually transmitted infections and establishing a platform for the integrated delivery of interventions (including the life-course approach; reproduction, maternal, newborn, child and adolescent health care; and immunizations).