People with hepatitis complications at high risk of severe COVID-19 cases, WHO warns

By Hassan Zaggi

The World Health Organisation (WHO), has warned that people with hepatitis-related complications are at a higher risk of developing severe cases of COVID-19.

It, therefore, insisted that such people must continue to receive essential hepatitis prevention and treatment services during the pandemic and beyond.

In a message to mark the World hepatitis day 2020, the WHO Regional Director for Africa, Dr Matshidiso Moeti, expressed optimism that, “with political commitment from governments and partners, backed by financing and integrated using a health system strengthening approach, and with informed and empowered communities, we can achieve a #HepFreeFuture.”

She further warned that, “as we battle COVID-19, the threat of further delays to scaling-up hepatitis B birth-dose vaccination and other essential hepatitis services looms large.”

She regretted that Hepatitis B can go undetected for years and have devastating consequences.

The WHO Regional Director explained that Hepatitis B comprises 85% of the hepatitis burden in the WHO African Region.

The most vulnerable time for infection, according to her, is in the first month of life, and this can be prevented with hepatitis B birth-dose vaccination in the first 24 hours of life.

Achieving at least 90% coverage in the Region, would prevent over 1.5 million new infections and 1.2 million deaths from liver cancer by 2035.

She disclosed that WHO is working with countries and partners to accelerate action towards a 90% reduction of new hepatitis B and C infections and a 65% reduction of deaths by 2030.

“Achieving these goals requires urgent introduction and scaling-up of hepatitis B birth-dose vaccination and leveraging the HIV and syphilis infrastructure to prevent mother-to-child transmission and ensure mothers have access to testing and treatment.

“I commend the Organization of African First Ladies, in this regard for advocating triple elimination of mother-to-child transmission of HIV, syphilis and hepatitis B.”

Despite the low cost of the hepatitis B birth-dose vaccine, the WHO lamented that only 13 African countries have introduced it, far short of the target of 25 countries by 2020.

So far, 15 countries have launched national hepatitis plans, and Rwanda and Uganda have national testing and treatment programmes for hepatitis.

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