Health experts are calling on policymakers to introduce a hepatitis B vaccine to all newborn babies within 24 hours after birth as part of measures to control the increasing rate of the disease in the country.
Currently, newborns are immunised against Hepatitis B Virus (HBV) six weeks after their birth to prevent any possibility of maternal transmission.
But health experts say that is not enough since most newborns affected in the early days have a high chance of chronic hepatitis which may develop into irreversible liver damage, liver cancer and, in some cases, premature death.
A member of the Hepatitis B Working Group under the National Viral Hepatitis Programme, Dr Adwoa Agyei-Nkansah, told The Mirror that currently, Ghana was one of the countries with very high level of hepatitis B, with about 12 to 15 per cent of the population living with the condition.
She made reference to the World Health Organisation (WHO), which says any country with a prevalence rate of eight per cent and above was considered hyper-endemic.
“For countries like Ghana, the main mode of transmission is from mother to child during and after delivery, so one way of preventing that is to give the newborn a vaccine right after birth. About 95 per cent of babies who are exposed to the virus become chronic carriers for life as their defence system is not developed at that stage,” she explained.
Transmission in adults
In adults, Dr Agyei-Nkansah, who is also a Senior Lecturer at the University of Ghana Medical School, said the transmission could be through sex, sharing of personal care items, blood transfusion and also during accidents when victims with the virus bled into the wounds of other victims.
Health workers might also be exposed if they were accidentally pricked by an infected needle used on a patient.
Avoid sharing of personal care items
She explained that adults could only take the hepatitis B vaccine as a preventive measure if they were negative.
“The adult vaccine comes in three shots; the first two doses are usually given one month apart, with the third dose six to 12 months later. If the source of the vaccine is accredited and the vaccine is well kept within the appropriate temperature, it can last you for a lifetime,” she noted.
Dr Agyei-Nkansah said although there were five main strains of the hepatitis virus – A, B, C, D and E, the prevalence rate of B in Ghana was high, hence the need to increase awareness and encourage more people to check their status.
“Hepatitis B has a vaccine, so it’s easier to control the spread. Once people are well informed about the preventive measures and the need to get a vaccine, the prevalence rate decreases,” she added.
High cost of treatment
Dr Agyei-Nkansah explained that currently, the cost of laboratory tests ranged between GH¢800 and GH¢1,200, with treatment costing between GH¢200 and GH¢300 per month for life.
“Aside from the strain it puts on both the patient and the health system, treating a patient with the disease is so costly. Most of the costs of investigations are also not covered under the National Health Insurance Scheme and this puts a financial burden on the patient and family. The vaccines, on the other hand, are cheaper and prevent any complications resulting from the virus,” the doctor said.
World Hepatitis Day
According to the WHO, World Hepatitis Day is commemorated each year on July 28 to enhance awareness of viral hepatitis, an inflammation of the liver that causes a range of health problems, including liver cancer.
There are five main strains of the hepatitis virus – A, B, C, D, and E. Together, Hepatitis B and C are the most common cause of deaths, with 1.3 million lives lost each year. Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, viral hepatitis continues to claim thousands of lives every day.
The vaccines are cheaper and prevent any complications resulting from the virus
This year’s theme was “Hepatitis-free future”, with a strong focus on preventing Hepatitis B among mothers and newborns.
In Ghana, as part of activities to mark the day, trained health promotion officers educated people at antenatal and various clinics across the country in compliance with COVID-19 protocols, media engagements and virtual meetings amongst health experts.