In his hometown, Uwasi, situated in Ghana’s Upper East Region, Thomas Abanga*, aged 27, has witnessed the devastating impact of viral hepatitis on numerous occasions.
“I have sadly attended funerals of both friends and family members who lost their lives to viral hepatitis. So, when I was diagnosed with hepatitis C, I felt hopeless, thinking that my time might be limited,” recalls Thomas.
However, two years after his diagnosis, Thomas now radiates good health, thanks to Ghana’s progressing response to hepatitis C.
Hepatitis, an inflammation of the liver caused by various factors such as viruses, infections, alcohol, and specific drugs, can lead to a range of health complications, some of which can be fatal.
Globally, a staggering 90% of people living with viral hepatitis are unaware of their condition, and the disease claims the lives of 3,000 individuals daily.
The World Health Organization (WHO) has endorsed a global hepatitis strategy, backed by all WHO Member States, aiming to reduce new hepatitis infections by 90% and related deaths by 65% between 2016 and 2030.
In 2019, the African Region saw an estimated 1.2 million new hepatitis infections and 125,000 hepatitis-related deaths (both B and C combined). Given this burden, an all-encompassing response is emphasized in the Framework for an Integrated Multisectoral Response to TB, HIV, STIs, and Hepatitis in the WHO African Region, where over 91 million Africans are living with hepatitis.
The stats: viral hepatitis
In Ghana, viral hepatitis is a pressing concern for health authorities. Hepatitis B is hyper-endemic, with an estimated prevalence of 9.1% in the population, while hepatitis C also poses a substantial burden with an estimated prevalence of 3.3%.
The impact of hepatitis disproportionately affects the people in northern Ghana. Here, poverty and unequal access to quality healthcare services render them more susceptible to infections compared to other regions in the country.
Presently, there is no effective vaccine against hepatitis C. Nonetheless, early diagnosis and treatment have proven to cure over 95% of individuals, preventing further transmission of the virus. Historically, Ghana faced challenges with low rates of testing and treatment for hepatitis B and C, largely due to the high costs of services and limited treatment accessibility. However, this is now changing with dedicated efforts from the government to combat the disease.
Addressing the growing burden of hepatitis infections necessitates urgent action at all levels to safeguard individuals and communities. In 2017, the Ministry of Health and the Ghana Health Service, in collaboration with the National Viral Hepatitis Control Programme (NVHCP) and with WHO’s support and technical guidance, formulated national guidelines for the prevention, care, and treatment of viral hepatitis.
The dissemination of these guidelines has contributed to enhancing the knowledge of healthcare workers and bridging gaps in treatment access, as there was a scarcity of healthcare professionals capable of administering treatments across the country. Progress has been made, but further training of health workers is still required.
In March 2023, the Ghanaian government, in partnership with the government of Egypt, WHO, and other allies, initiated the ‘STOP Hep C Ghana Project.’ This ambitious initiative spans from cities to villages, providing free hepatitis C treatment at all levels of care to all Ghanaians with an active infection.
Under the STOP Hep C Ghana Project, 220 people living close to treatment locations have already received life-changing hepatitis C drugs and regular counseling. By the end of 2023, an additional 780 individuals are expected to benefit from the free treatment project.
Dr. Atsu Seake-Kwawu, Programme Manager of the NVHCP, states, “The hepatitis C treatment project is the first person-centered intervention by the government that directly addresses the needs of people affected by hepatitis. We are exploring partnerships to ensure the successful delivery of this initiative and establish a solid foundation for eliminating hepatitis in Ghana.”
Furthermore, Ghana has made significant strides in combating hepatitis B, for which a vaccine is available. The country boasts 99% coverage through the infant routine vaccination program and plans to introduce the hepatitis B vaccine at birth in the near future.
Additionally, a testing and treatment program for hepatitis B is under consideration.
Aligned with its guidelines, WHO has been providing financial and technical support to the NVHCP since 2011, including capacity building for healthcare workers and awareness campaigns on managing and preventing hepatitis.
Professor Francis Kasolo, WHO Representative to Ghana, expresses excitement about Ghana’s momentum in the fight against viral hepatitis, saying, “As WHO, we are thrilled to witness the rapid progress being made in Ghana’s battle against viral hepatitis.
Alongside efforts to make treatment accessible across the country, we continue to support Ghana in strengthening viral hepatitis prevention and risk reduction.”