8 August 2018

Uganda: Why Uganda War Against Hepatitis B Is Not Won Yet

Although Uganda has undertaken a mass vaccination campaign since 2015 against Hepatitis B, the prevalence of the disease in the country remains at a high 4.3 per cent.

The Ministry of Health says the disease is a public health concern and has called for intensified testing and vaccination of the public.

Hepatitis B is a viral disease that causes inflammation of the liver. It is spread through direct blood contact, unprotected sex or sharing of skin piercing instruments such as needles with persons who are infected.

Infants can acquire the virus through their infected mothers.

The disease has no cure but immunising people against it can prevent initial infection.

State Minister for Health Sarah Opendi said the vaccination campaign initiated sought to screen and test up to 17 million people considered at high risk of infection and those in areas where the virus is endemic.

In the first phase undertaken in northern Uganda, where prevalence is highest at 4.6 per cent of the general population, Ms Opendi said an estimated 2.4 million people were screened and 139,505 who tested positive were linked to treatment services.

Those who test positive are often treated using drugs such as oral antiviral agents to control the disease from progressing into chronic illness stage.

Health experts say most people can live with the Hepatitis B virus in their body for many years before they present with symptoms.

As such, the majority of those who get infected often do not know that they have been infected until the disease becomes chronic.

Chronic Hepatitis B can lead to liver cirrhosis or liver cancer.

At Mulago national referral hospital, 80 per cent of liver cancers have been attributed to Hepatitis B infection.

The WHO lists Uganda alongside Egypt, Nigeria, Brazil, China, India, Indonesia, Vietnam, Mongolia, Myanmar and Pakistan as the countries that carry almost 50 per cent of the global burden of chronic Hepatitis B virus.

Ms Opendi added that people who test negative and start the vaccination but do not complete the required three doses, increase their future risk of re-acquiring the disease.

She said of the 2.2 million who tested negative in the first phase of the mass vaccination drive, 91 per cent turned up for the first dose but, "Only 68 per cent came back for the second dose and 33 per cent for the third dose."

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