Anti-hepatitis campaign good as disease kills even more than Aids
The report indicating that 100 people had tested positive for hepatitis B virus (HBV) infection while at least 25 had died in Elgeyo-Marakwet, Baringo and West Pokot counties in the past four months (DN, January 28) raises more questions than answers.
Despite its high prevalence, there are a few misconceptions about the prevalence, spread and outcome of HBV, which infects and kills more people than even HIV/Aids.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates that 240 million people are infected with HBV and 170 million with hepatitis C (HCV).
Globally, 36.9 million people were living with HIV in 2017.
HBV is often referred to as a ‘silent epidemic’ because nine out of 10 infected persons remain unaware of their condition for years.
Unlike measles, flu or meningitis, whose outbreaks cause deaths within days, those infected with HBV rarely show signs and end up without appropriate treatment.
One in four HBV patients will die of liver cancer or failure after many years.
Kenya is among the high-prevalence countries in Africa and Asia, where the rate of chronic infection exceeds eight percent, particularly in adults aged 25-44.
Asia leads in prevalence rates of HBV in the general population and people who inject drugs. In Vietnam, 15-17 percent of the country’s 100 million people have hepatitis B or C.
Hepatitis B is a viral infection transmitted through blood and body fluids of an infected person (semen or saliva).
It’s transmitted through broken skin, mucous membrane, from mother to child and by sexual intercourse.
HBV is not spread through food or water, sharing utensils, breastfeeding, hugging, kissing, holding hands, coughing or sneezing, making an “outbreak”, as it was reported, unlikely.
Unlike HIV, HBV can survive for seven days outside the body, making dried blood and secretions a serious health threat.
It then attacks the liver, resulting in acute and chronic disease. The acute phase is often asymptomatic and, unless one is infected as an infant, few adults progress to chronic state.
The risk of developing chronic HBV infection decreases with age and only five percent of adults who get an acute infection will be at risk of developing liver cirrhosis and cancer.
By comparison, infected infants and children under five have a 90 and 30 percent chance of developing chronic disease, respectively.
Vaccinating children is the most effective way to prevent HBV infection.
The vaccine is not only effective but also its effects are durable. The vaccine is so effective at preventing HBV and liver cancer that it’s deemed the world’s first “anti-cancer vaccine”.
To combat viral hepatitis, however, requires a long-term plan of mass screening, vaccination and public education on causes of liver disease such as viral hepatitis, heavy alcohol use, smoking, overweight and obesity.