How to get hepatitis fight back on track after Covid

Doctor hands holding liver viral

World Hepatitis Day concept.

Photo credit: Shutterstock

Over the past 15 years, Kenya has made significant advancements in testing, diagnosing and managing hepatitis. Despite this, public health specialists have highlighted the increasing incidence of viral hepatitis in society and the subsequent burden on existing healthcare models.

While efforts to limit the outcomes and effects of hepatitis have been rolled out, the recent surge, especially among children, is worrying. Addressing control and prevention of hepatitis today will require increased public awareness and an effective call-to-action plan.

Hepatitis is an inflammation of the liver. It is commonly caused by a viral infection and a common symptom is having  yellowish skin and eyes. In Kenya today, the most common type of hepatitis affecting all age groups is hepatitis A, B, and C. While vaccines are available for hepatitis A and B, there is still very little public awareness and information on curing, preventing and treating them.

The elimination or reduction of infection rates for hepatitis B and C is pegged on cost-effective and simple initiatives compared to other diseases with identical prevalence and extent of effect on the population.

Drug abusers and addicts who share needles and syringes are at a bigger risk of contracting hepatitis C. This is a habit that is particularly common among youths in Mombasa, Nairobi, and other major Kenyan cities. The sad part about this is that most of them do not really have adequate information or any information at all with regards to the signs and symptoms of hepatitis.

It has also been established that individuals can carry the disease for long periods of time without knowing and without showing any signs whatsoever — up to 20 years in some cases.

The outbreak of Covid-19 in March 2020 hampered existing efforts to fight other viral diseases, including hepatitis, as healthcare resources and personnel were redirected to the fight against the coronavirus.

With the right public health response, we can manage and eradicate the danger of hepatitis in our society. This will, however, require different stakeholders working together, especially considering that studies have shown that healthcare workers are at a greater risk of contracting the disease.

Engaging the public through public health programmes and raising awareness on the need for prevention and screening is key to the reduction of acute cases of hepatitis that have a proven potential to turn fatal. Prevention of the disease is way cheaper than treatment and subsequent care for patients.

Technological advancements in the medical and healthcare field have made it possible for countries to make significant steps in installing healthcare programmes that are easily accessible to their citizenry. We must not be left behind in this.

Stakeholders need to come together and work hand-in-hand with the government in fighting viral infections that ail our society today. This will greatly reduce cases of chronic complications and ease the burden on national health programmes.

Testing for hepatitis should be offered across the community and ensure that these services penetrate to the remotest parts of the country. There are so many unreported cases of hepatitis in rural areas because of an acute deficiency of diagnosis and treatment services. This deficit ought to be filled by a vigorous approach to enlist communities and community-based organisations in public health education.

Making community engagement a key part of healthcare providers’ expansion models can really help in increasing the breadth of healthcare services. This can enable them to relate better with the communities they serve and offer healthcare services effectively.

This helps compliment government efforts on healthcare more broadly and effectively fight emergency and non-emergency health complications.

We also need to invest more in health research and ensure that we have systems in place to guarantee universal access to available information on hepatitis. Research in the medical space is an evolving venture and we do have unlimited potential to dedicate resources to this venture and widen it as much as possible.

Universities in the West have been equipped with necessary resources to do research on viral infections with fully functional departments allocated to such. The same has been replicated locally with our institutions of higher learning. What we need to do is harness the heights of determination and zeal in the field of disease research to equip our institutions through investments and adequate resource allocation.

Hepatitis is on the rise today due to the limited information on signs, symptoms and prevention measures. All these can be offset by an effective multi-pronged public health response geared towards raising awareness on hepatitis.

The writer is a consultant physician–internist and the franchise owner of the Equity Afia Karatina Medical Centre

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