By: Adam Roberts, CEO Rotarian Action Group for Hepatitis Eradication
Humberto Silva, the Chairman and Founder of the Rotarian Action Group for Hepatitis Eradication, addressed hundreds of delegates at this week’s first Rotary Africa Summit, held in Marrakesh, Morocco. He told the convened representatives from across the continent about his own time facing death from hepatitis C, comparing it to the end of a soccer match: “the referee was about to blow the whistle” to end the game, “but God stepped in and gave me a
chance.” Humberto now dedicates his life to giving others a chance to have their lives saved from hepatitis.
No matter where one looks in Africa – north, south, central, east, or west – hepatitis B and hepatitis C present a staggering health problem; some would say it is a lingering global health emergency.
In the north, take Egypt, which is thought to have the highest rate of hepatitis C infection in the world, with an average estimated infection rate of more than 7% of the country infected, and some specific regions as high as 28% (particularly in rural villages). In the south, Zimbabwe has hepatitis rates at approximately 14% and 7% for hepatitis B and C respectively. Central Africa has the second highest hepatitis C prevalence in the world. In the east, consider Kenya where the hepatitis B rate is three times the rate of HIV. And in west Africa, Niger’s hepatitis B rate surpasses 15%.
Although the numbers vary across the 54 countries of the continent, with some prevalence rates of viral hepatitis being higher than others, some things seem consistently pervasive across Africa: intravenous drug use and unsanitary conditions exacerbate the spread of the disease; growing populations and limited resources make aggressively tackling the disease harder; hospitals are often ill-equipped to handle hepatitis-positive patients; and awareness of the disease and treatment possibilities are often incredibly low.
How do we tackle this simmering health challenge? As with most challenges, there are many pieces of the solution and they all must be incorporated: government commitments, international funding, community-driven testing and treatment for infected patients, and public-private partnerships to engage the nongovernmental community working with governmental partners to bring a solution to every individual in need.
For hepatitis, a silent killer that affects millions before they even know they have a deadly disease, we know that with a simple, rapid, finger-prick test, hepatitis can be identified. A drop of blood will reveal a latent disease hiding in the body and attacking the liver, slowly, day after day, year after year… until it’s too late.
For patients who test positive, treatment is available. Oral vaccines in the form of daily pill spread over a few months can fight the disease and ultimately shepherd it from the body completely.
The Rotarian Action Group for Hepatitis Eradication, one of the burgeoning global leaders in community-led health provision, is focusing its attention on establishing a Pan-African Hepatitis Week in July 2019. The plan is simple. The plan is ambitious. Rotarians, health professionals, health clinics, and government health ministries will all band together to perform free tests to entire populations across Africa, helping identify people in need of care and treatment for hepatitis. And, of course, we will be working closely with the pharmaceutical companies that produce both the hepatitis tests and hepatitis drugs to ensure they can be delivered on the ground in the most cost-efficient way.
Unlike so many deadly diseases, hepatitis can be identified; hepatitis can be treated; hepatitis can be cured. The question is whether there is a global commitment to doing so… and how quickly we can get started!