PH must act to eliminate hepatitis
Chances are someone in your family is infected with hepatitis virus, but might not be aware of it. In the Philippines, around one in 10 people have chronic hepatitis B, and six in 1,000 have chronic hepatitis C. Hepatitis is a huge public health concern in the Philippines, but due to lack of awareness, many of those who have this viral disease may not even know they have it until it’s too late.
Hepatitis is a silent killer. Caused by a virus that has no symptoms, it quietly damages the liver for decades before ending in liver cancer and cirrhosis (scarring of the liver that reduces its ability to detoxify blood). Deaths due to hepatitis have increased over the past two decades, with 1.4 million lives lost every year. But many leaders and members of the public are still not well-informed about the disease.
Without proper care, the two most common types of hepatitis—B and C—cause about 60 percent of liver cancer. This is why liver cancer is one of the top causes of cancer deaths in the Philippines.
Any deaths from preventable diseases are unacceptable, and hepatitis is no exception. Nowadays, we can prevent and treat the disease. Hepatitis B vaccine is highly effective when the first dose is given to babies within 24 hours of birth and followed up with two further doses. People living with chronic hepatitis B can be treated with highly effective medicines to stop the disease from progressing and reduce the risk of it developing into liver cancer. People with hepatitis C can now be cured within three months by taking new oral medicines called direct acting antivirals. However, many people with hepatitis do not know they are infected and thus do not seek treatment.
To eliminate this deadly disease, the Philippines must invest in hepatitis testing and treatment services. Aside from a program like this being the right thing to do for people’s health, it is also a very wise investment, as it saves money by avoiding much more costly care for liver cancer and cirrhosis.
Globally, we are aiming to reduce new viral hepatitis infections by 90 percent and deaths from chronic hepatitis by 65 percent by 2030, from the baseline of 2015. To reach that goal in the Philippines, hepatitis services must be covered by the Philippine Health Insurance Corporation (PhilHealth) much like it covers outpatient HIV/AIDS treatment.
The Philippines must also continue to strengthen the hepatitis B immunization for infants and adults. Current estimates indicate only 50 percent of newborn infants are administered with the hepatitis B birth dose within 24 hours after birth. The hepatitis B vaccine is a cost-effective measure to prevent hepatitis B. Those who have completed their immunization schedule are likely to be protected for at least 20 years, and probably longer.
Another vital action is to improve awareness of the problem. Put simply, if people don’t know about hepatitis, they won’t avoid infection or seek testing and treatment. Instead, their health will be damaged and they may be unwittingly infecting others. In some countries, misunderstandings about hepatitis have led to stigma and discrimination toward people living with the disease, meaning that people may be less likely to seek the life-saving treatment they need. Lack of awareness about the health impact of hepatitis also means not enough resources are allocated to tackling the disease.
We are supporting the Department of Health in translating commitments to reality, such as a high-impact project launched this year in Bataan and some parts of Metro Manila to integrate hepatitis services at the primary care level and strengthen referral systems. We are also providing technical assistance to the DOH in developing treatment guidelines, information, education and communication strategies, the development of training materials and a PhilHealth package for viral hepatitis.
But this is just a start; a lot more needs to be done. It’s not only the DOH’s job to eliminate hepatitis in the Philippines, we all have a role to play. So, on World Hepatitis Day tomorrow, July 28, I call on everyone to be more proactive in fighting hepatitis. Make sure your children and other kids in your community get fully vaccinated. Educate yourself and others about the risk of viral hepatitis and how to get tested. If you have been diagnosed with hepatitis, speak with a health worker about your treatment. Join local advocacy events to increase awareness in your community, and show your support for more investment toward eliminating the disease.
Let’s work together to eliminate hepatitis.
Gundo Weiler is the WHO representative in the Philippines.
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