4.5 million children under 5 infected with disease

Seeks integration of hepatitis B into antenatal care services

By Chioma Obinna

As the world mark this year’s World Hepatitis Day,  the World Health Organisation, WHO on Tuesday said not less than 124,000 Africans die from undetected and untreated hepatitis y, and  4.5 million children under five years of age are infected with the disease annually.

To this end, WHO is seeking to integrate hepatitis B interventions into antenatal care services.

In a message to mark this year’s World Hepatitis Day, WHO Regional Director for Africa, Dr Matshidiso  Moeti said hepatitis is a silent epidemic in Africa.

According to her, more than 90 million people are living with hepatitis in the Region, accounting for 26 per cent of the global total.  More than 124,000 Africans are dying every year from the consequences of undetected and untreated hepatitis.

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“Around 4.5 million African children under five years old are infected with chronic hepatitis B, reflecting an enormous 70 per cent of the global burden in this age group.

“The global target of less than 1 per cent incidence of hepatitis B in children under 5 years has been reached, but the African Region is lagging behind at 2.5 per cent. “

Moeti said most of the cases could be prevented by eliminating mother-to-child transmission of the disease, during or shortly after birth and in early childhood.

She noted that key interventions against hepatitis B include vaccination at birth and in early childhood, screening pregnant women, and providing timely treatment.

“So, in the WHO African Region, we are urging especially that “mothers can’t wait.” 

“We are encouraging countries to integrate the Hepatitis B PMTCT in the Ante-Natal Care package together with the HIV and Syphilis PMTCT program.”

She further disclosed that only 14 countries in the Region are implementing hepatitis B birth-dose vaccine.

According to her, among people who are infected, nine out of 10 have never been tested because of limited awareness and access to testing and treatment.   Even among countries offering hepatitis B birth-dose vaccine, health systems are facing challenges in ensuring pregnant women and mothers are tested and that those who test positive are treated.

Moeto further noted that there are many promising developments on hepatitis.

She said with the launch of the first global strategy on hepatitis in 2016, along with increased advocacy in recent years, political will is starting to translate into action.

“Hepatitis medicines have become much more affordable, with prices as low as US$ 60 per patient for a 12-week treatment.  

“Considering this advantage, African Heads of States have committed to addressing viral hepatitis as a public health threat in the Cairo Declaration in February 2020. In this line, the Egyptian Initiative planned to provide hepatitis C treatment for 1 million Africans. So far, this initiative has reached more than 50,000 people in South Sudan, Eritrea and Chad.

“part of them, Rwanda, Uganda and Benin have established free testing and treatment programmes for hepatitis, and 16 other countries are starting pilot projects in this direction.

To guide action on hepatitis, 28 African countries now have strategic plans in place and at the global level WHO guidelines were launched last year on prevention of mother-to-child transmission of hepatitis B.

“We also want to strengthen collaboration with key partners, such as the Organization of African First Ladies for Development, which have championed progress towards a HIV-free generation. By expanding programmes to incorporate hepatitis, action can be quickly scaled up.

She urged all stakeholders in maternal and child health to consider how hepatitis

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