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Integrate Hepatitis B prevention in Ante-natal care package, WHO tells African countries

Integrate Hepatitis B prevention in Ante-natal care package, WHO tells African countries

By Hassan Zaggi

The World Health Organisation (WHO) has called on  African countries to integrate Hepatitis B Prevention of Mother To Child Transmission (PMTCT) in the Ante-Natal Care package together with the HIV and Syphilis PMTCT program.

The WHO Regional Director for Africa, Dr Matshidiso Moeti, made the call in a statement to mark the year 2021 World Hepatitis Day. The theme for this year is “hepatitis can’t wait”.

Moeti, therefore, called on all countries in the region to rapidly improve access to services to prevent, diagnose and treat hepatitis.

The WHO, however, insisted that most of the cases of Hepatitis in children could be prevented by eliminating mother-to-child transmission of the disease, during or shortly after birth and in early childhood.

Key interventions against hepatitis B, according to the WHO, include vaccination at birth and in early childhood, screening pregnant women, and providing timely treatment. 

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

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

The WHO Chief further regretted that “only 14 countries in the region are implementing hepatitis B birth-dose vaccine. 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.”

She, however, noted that with increased advocacy in recent years, political will among the African leaders is starting to translate into action, stressing that “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 address 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. 

“A 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.

“The WHO Regional Office for Africa is developing training materials in order to help countries to implement the five hepatitis core interventions and decentralize the diagnosis and treatment. 

“Going forward, as WHO we are seeking to integrate hepatitis B interventions into antenatal care services.

“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.”

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