Today, Nigeria joins the rest of the global community to mark the World Hepatitis Day. The theme of this year’s celebration is “Hepatitis Can’t Wait”. The theme is quite apt, considering the fact that one person dies globally in every 30 seconds from hepatitis-related ailment. In view of the fact that COVID-19 pandemic has come to compound the situation, it has become imperative to take the battle to the killer ailment.
A brainchild of the World Health Organisation (WHO), the Day was originally celebrated as International Hepatitis C Awareness Day in Europe and Middle Eastern regions by the World Hepatitis Alliance on October 1, 2004. In some other parts of the world, the celebration took place on different dates. In 2008, the Alliance declared May 19 as the World Hepatitis Day in order to harmonise the campaigns for maximum impact.
However, in May 2010, the 63rd World Health Assembly changed the date to July 28. Presently, the Day is marked actively in over 100 countries as World Hepatitis Day with the main focus of raising awareness at the global level. It is also aimed at expanding the educational areas as well as providing opportunities for the new generations towards deepening their understanding of the viral hepatitis. The Day was also picked in honour of the Nobel Laureate, Baruch Samuel Blumberg, the discoverer of Hepatitis B virus, whose birthday was July 28.
Besides the Hepatitis B virus discovered by Blumberg, there are four other types of viruses namely A, C, D and E. Hepatitis A and E are short-term infections but are regarded as acute. However, B, C and D types are long-term infections and are called chronic hepatitis which could lead to some life-threatening complications including liver cirrhosis, liver cancer and liver failure among others.
According to available statistics, more than 360m people are sickened by the disease worldwide, with fatalities hitting close to 1.5m annually. Of this frightening number, Nigeria is home to about 23m carriers. The tragic reality is that only one per cent of the victims are aware of their status. It thus makes it a silent killer which is worse than HIV/AIDS. The global prevalence of hepatoma is about 4 per cent but it is much higher in Nigeria where it is put at about 10 per cent, with the majority unaware that they are carriers of the deadly virus.
The main target of the disease is the liver where it causes inflammation among other complications. However, Hepatitis B is the most common and is prevalent in the Asian and African countries owing to low standard of living and chronic poverty. Infections from Type A can come through food and water contaminated with fecal matter commonly dropped in the open. Vaccines are available for Types A and B. Type C can be caused by the sharing of needles, blood transfusion, sharing of barbing tools, hair care equipment for injecting cosmetic substances, steroids and drugs. Other risk factors are blood transfusion, indiscriminate, unprotected and oral sex.
Given our low annual budgets to the healthcare sector and lack of awareness about the killer disease, it is not surprising that the infections have reached an alarming level. There is hardly anywhere in this country that you don’t find factors fueling the disease. Poor sanitation; foods are hawked in the open without any regard for hygiene; roadside eateries; roasted meat (suya) are exposed to all manner of contaminations. It is very common to see patrons in eateries eating with one hand and using the other for fly control.
The relevant agencies charged with the responsibilities of ensuring that foods are served or hawked with strict adherence to basic rules of hygiene, such as National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control (NAFDAC) and sanitary inspectors, have abdicated their mandate.
Nigerians are, therefore, advised to get tested for the disease since it is curable and preventable unlike the HIV/AIDS. They should also avoid sharing hair care implements such as razors and clippers, take extra care in the handling of needles, get the blood screened before transfusions, be careful about where and what they eat, and get vaccinated as soon as possible because virtually everyone is at risk.
However, it is heartwarming to note that viral hepatitis has been included in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the recent adoption of the world’s first global hepatitis strategy. Political commitment is needed now more than ever before. Without urgent action on the part of the government at all levels, deaths would continue to rise and the epidemic would be on the increase. It is through deliberate and collective efforts that the theme for this year’s commemoration would not only find relevance but also the global target of eliminating the ailment by the year 2030 achieved.
We suggest that Hepatitis-related activities should also be arranged in our offices, public places such as markets, motor parks, churches and mosques, as well as in various communities and organisations as a way of creating the needed awareness about the danger of the silent killer disease.