3 August 2017

Ghana: Hepatitis B Spreading in Ghana Due to Lack of Awareness

Photo: Faustin Niyigena/The New Times
A nurse vaccinates a person during last week’s World Hepatitis Day celebrations in Kigali.

One cause for the rapid spread of the disease is when people with bleeding gums share a drink with others, using the same cup. Those who test positive and tell their families are often stigmatised.

Hepatitis B is a public health concern globally; however a majority of people in Ghana still think it is a form of witchcraft or that someone has been poisoned by his or her enemy.

Such misconceptions about this infectious disease are believed to have fueled the spread in the West African country.

32-year-old Mankarel Hassan was diagnosed with the disease seven months ago. He found out about his status when he went to donate blood to his sister.

"When the doctor told me that my sister was in need of blood, I knew that I was the best person to help her. Unfortunately, my blood was of no use since I tested positive for hepatitis B," Mankarel said.

He said he was still trying to come to terms with this.

Luckily, Mankarel's sister managed to get blood from the blood bank at the Teaching Hospital in Tamale in northern Ghana.

Mankarel, who has no family of his own, found it hard to break the news to his family because of the stigma and discrimination that persons diagnosed with hepatitis B often experience from the community.

Many receive little support from their families because of a widespread lack of awareness.

"When I broke the news to my mother, she took me to many spiritual healers because she thought I'd been poisoned," Mankarel told DW.

"I have heard a lot about my condition on radio and I visited a hospital to seek help from a doctor. Whenever I see many people who are infected with the virus, I pity myself because I don't know what will happen to me," he said.

Hepatitis B is a viral infection that attacks the liver and can cause both acute and chronic forms of the disease. It is a major public health problem globally, particularly in developing countries.

Most people do not experience any symptoms during the acute infection phase. However, some suffer from acute illness with symptoms that last several weeks, including yellowing of the skin and eyes (jaundice), dark urine, extreme fatigue, nausea, vomiting and abdominal pain. Those who develop acute hepatitis can develop acute liver failure, which can lead to death.

In other people, the virus can also cause a chronic liver infection that can later develop into liver cancer.

The dangers of sharing a drink

According to the Save Your Life Foundation in Ghana, hepatitis B and liver-related diseases are on the rise. Nearly 600,000 people die annually across the world due to acute or chronic hepatitis B.

A study conducted by the US-based National Center for Biotechnical Information in 2015 showed that nearly one in nine blood donors may be infected with the virus.

Doctors say the virus is mainly spread when a group of people share a drink using a calabash. This is a form of cup that is used in local bars where people go to buy the local beverage Pito.

"It also depends on the viral load in the person. Some of those who drink have bleeding gums. So if you have bleeding gums and you take a drink and your blood is attached to the calabash, the other person is likely to be infected," Gerald Adiboka, a doctor at Tamale Teaching Hospital explains.

There is no specific cure for acute hepatitis B. Care is aimed at maintaining comfort and nutritional balance, including replacing fluids lost through vomiting and diarrhoea.

Chronic hepatitis B infection can be treated with medicines, including oral antiviral agents. Treatment can slow the progression of cirrhosis, reduce the incidence of liver cancer and improve long term survival prospects.

The World Health Organization recommends the use of the drugs tenofovir or entecavir. They rarely lead to drug resistance because patients need only take one pill a day and require limited monitoring.

Lack of adequate information in Ghana is also to blame for the spread of the disease. According to the 2015 report, the three main ways that a person can be infected are; through blood transfusion, unprotected sex and mother to child transmission at birth. Most Ghanaians with chronic hepatitis B were infected at birth.

Doctor Adiboka added that in order to reduce the hepatitis B infections rates there's a need to create awareness of the disease to prevent new infections among Ghanaians.

Researchers who took part in this study are calling for the establishment of a national hepatitis screening program for all pregnant women in antenatal clinics throughout Ghana. They also want a national policy to be adopted to vaccinate all pregnant women who test negative in order to reduce the risk of mother to child transmission within the population. This vaccine is 95 per cent effective.

Maxwell Suuk contributed to this article

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