Hepatitis: A Silent Killer

Hepatitis, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO), is an inflammation of the liver that is caused by a variety of infectious viruses and non-infectious agents leading to a range of health problems, some of which can be fatal.

It is estimated that one person dies every 30 seconds from a hepatitis related illness. This, perhaps, may be why this year’s World Hepatitis Day theme was carefully chosen: “Hepatitis: Don’t wait, get tested”.

This conveys the urgency of efforts needed to eliminate hepatitis as a public health threat. Isioma Madike looks at the silent epidemic through the lens of medical experts

In 2020, Azubuike went to hospital with an injury. While there he had several tests and discovered he had Hepatitis B, contracted from his mother during pregnancy.

His siblings also all tested positive. They had all had the virus since birth. With no symptoms, Azubuike was not in a hurry to seek advice.

However, one of their hospital nurses met with the whole family to discuss the next steps but Azubuike didn’t attend this meeting: he didn’t think he needed to.

But the nurse – the hepatitis hunter, Azubuike calls her – ferreted him out and organised blood tests.

They found Azubuike was the worst-affected of all his family, even though he didn’t drink or smoke and was a healthy vegetarian. The nurse suggested Azubuike start taking medication.

Since then his hepatitis status has changed drastically and he’s grateful for the support.

“The nurse’s contact saved me,” he said. Others in his family, sadly, weren’t so lucky; some have lost their battle with the virus Azubuike calls a silent killer.

“It’s very serious and should be dealt with properly. Go straight to the hospital and receive regular check-ups,” he advises anyone else in a similar situation. Azubike’s liver condition was picked up during the forced check-up.

It was, understandably, a shock to him. “I didn’t know much about it at the time,” he said. He’s since learned to manage it by having regular blood tests and eating properly. “I don’t really drink, don’t smoke. I only eat meat every few days.”

He also makes a lot of vegetable juices to boost his immune system. “I’ve always liked vegetables.” Azubuike stays fit, exercising at home on a routine, and his physical work helps. It’s a far cry from his pre-hepatitis days.

“I was pretty bad back then, eating pies before work,” he said. Stigma is everywhere, he said, adding, “People don’t think about the facts of how the virus is transmitted– they are afraid to even touch someone who has it.

Many people don’t even want to get tested, because treatment, they believe, is either not available or costs too much money. They say, “what’s the point?’ This needs to change.”

However, Azubuike’s case is one out of the many, who suffer from hepatitis without knowing they have the virus.

This may have been the reason the World Health Organisation (WHO) is taking the message to every nook and cranny of the world, sensitising everyone.

World Hepatitis Day (WHD), which WHO initiated, takes place every year on July 28. It is aimed at bringing the world together under a single theme to raise awareness of the global burden of viral hepatitis and to influence real change.

This year’s theme: “Don’t wait, get tested”, is urging people living with viral hepatitis unaware not to wait for testing, and for lifesaving treatments.

Medical experts have also said that knowing that hepatitis is the leading cause of liver cancer, getting tested remains the best way to protect oneself.

“1 can’t wait” campaign also highlights the need to accelerate the fight against viral hepatitis and the importance of testing and treatment for the real people who need it.

The campaign seeks to amplify the voices of people affected by viral hepatitis calling for immediate action and the end of stigma and discrimination.

According to WHO, people living with viral hepatitis unaware can’t wait for testing, can’t wait for life saving treatments, can’t wait to end stigma and discrimination; expectant mothers can’t also wait for hepatitis screening and treatment, likewise newborn babies, who can’t wait for birth dose vaccination.

WHO has equally urged community organisations not to wait for greater investment, and decision makers to act now to make hepatitis elimination a reality through political will and funding. There are five main strains of the hepatitis virus – A, B, C, D and E.

Together, Hepatitis B and C are the most common, which result in global 1.1 million deaths and three million new infections per year as at 2021, says WHO. Hepatitis in a plain language means inflammation of the liver.

The liver, according to medical experts, is a vital organ that processes nutrients, filters the blood and fights infections. When the liver is inflamed or damaged, its functions, they say, can be affected.

Though commonly caused by a viral infection, there are other possible causes of hepatitis such as heavy alcohol use, toxins, some medications, and certain medical conditions.

It could be easily contracted from a victim through contact of body fluids. This could be either through sexual contact, blood contact or even saliva. It could also be contracted if by chance a person consumes the waste passed out from a carrier.

Slight contact with these fluids can transmit the disease, the medics say.

Former President, Guild of Medical Directors (GMD) and Chief Medical Director, Rachel Eye Centre, Abuja, Professor Olufemi Babalola, has called hepatitis, a silent epidemic in Nigeria.

He went on to give a detailed analysis of the virus, saying that about 10-15 per cent of the population are seropositive, in which case, may end up with liver cancer, (hepatoma) having been carriers for several years.

Everyone, he said, must have a serological test to rule it out as soon as possible.

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