World Hepatitis Day 2023
Message of WHO Regional Director for Africa, Dr Matshidiso Moeti
In 1967, Dr Baruch Blumberg (1925-2011) discovered the Hepatitis B virus. Two years later, he also developed the first Hepatitis B vaccine. He was born on 28 July, and for this reason, World Hepatitis Day is celebrated today.
Infection with the hepatitis B virus is preventable by vaccination, while doctors can now successfully treat hepatitis C, caused by the hepatitis C virus, with antiviral drugs.
Hepatitis causes the breakdown of the liver’s normal structure, which prevents the liver from working correctly. The theme for this year’s World Hepatitis Day, “One Life, One Liver” seeks to emphasize the link between viral hepatitis infection and liver inflammation—that is, liver injury and damage—and the broader issues of liver health and primary health care.
Hepatitis B is commonly transmitted from mother to child during birth and delivery. Hepatitis B is also spread through contact with blood or other body fluids during sex with an infected partner, unsafe injections, or exposures to sharp instruments.
Hepatitis C is spread through contact with the blood of an infected person by unscreened blood transfusions, sharing needles, and unsafe sexual practices that lead to direct exposure to blood.
More than 91 million Africans are living with hepatitis. In 2019, an estimated 1.2 million new hepatitis infections and 125 000 hepatitis-related deaths occurred in the African Region. Deaths occur mostly among the young and productive segments of the population.
WHO’s global hepatitis strategy, endorsed by all WHO Member States, and the Framework for an Integrated Multisectoral Response to TB, HIV, STIs, and Hepatitis in the WHO African Region aims to reduce new hepatitis infections by 90% and deaths by 65% by 2030.
WHO supports regional and national efforts to eliminate viral hepatitis by 2030 by providing clear guidance for decentralized and simplified person-centered prevention, testing and treatment of viral hepatitis, including eliminating hepatitis B through birth dose vaccination (the day of birth or the day after).
A lot still needs to be done to reduce hepatitis-related deaths and infections. Despite the availability of diagnostic tools and effective treatment, more than 90% of people living with hepatitis in Africa do not receive the care they need, and less than 10% of the population has access to testing and treatment. This leads to progressive advanced liver disease, devastating financial burden, emotional distress and stigma. Testing and treatment, as a public health approach, remains the most neglected aspect of the response.
The highest burden of hepatitis B infection in children below 5 years of age is seen in countries without hepatitis B vaccination at birth. Immunization, thus, is an important component in the fight against hepatitis. I am glad all 47 Member States in the Africa Region have included the Hepatitis B vaccine in routine immunization. However, coverage for routine childhood vaccination against Hepatitis B in the region stands at 72%, far below the global target of 90%. As of 2022, 16 countries in the region provide a birth dose of the vaccine to all newborns, up from 11 in 2021.
Let’s take advantage of available tools and interventions to ensure liver health for all persons.
We must make services available through strong primary health care services increasingly funded through domestic resources. Testing and treatment interventions must be part of the essential package of health services delivered through integrated primary health care that addresses the needs of individuals of all ages (newborn, child, adolescent reproductive and maternal health care).
We must scale up hepatitis B immunization coverage to reach the globally agreed target of 90%. Therefore, I urge all countries to work to introduce the Hepatitis birth dose.
I encourage policymakers and partners to demonstrate political commitment to sustained and simplified hepatitis testing, prevention, and treatment as part of broader liver health and primary health care to achieve viral hepatitis elimination. I remind communities to take up hepatitis vaccination, hepatitis testing, treatment and curative services through all available health services.
I commend Namibia for being the first country to apply for the WHO path to elimination status for Hepatitis B and look forward to other countries in the region doing the same soon.