Ugandan health officials recently joined the rest of the world in marking World Hepatitis Day to throw light on a disease that afflicts 10% of Uganda's population.
Hepatitis is an inflammation of the liver which can cause serious damage if left untreated. The disease has five types two of which lead to chronic disease in millions of people around the world.
Two years ago, the Ministry of Health announced that it lacked funds for fighting the hepatitis disease. Back then, the Ministry’s policy statements indicated that the amount of money required to reduce the Hepatitis B outbreak in the country was Shs30 billion. The money was meant to buy drugs and equipment for testing hepatitis.
In the budget for the last Financial year, 5 billion shillings was earmarked for the cause. But the increase in the allocation has not changed much, going by the high prevalence of the disease in parts of the country.
Regionally, Karamoja has the highest infection rates at 23.9%, Northern Uganda comes second at 20%, West Nile, 18.5% and the western region has the lowest rate at 10%. Hepatitis B is responsible for 80% of all liver cancers in Mulago hospital.
Jacob (not real name) has been living with Hepatitis B for a year now. He discovered he had the disease as he went searching for a job. Jacob says the results came as a shocker to him because he had no clue about hepatitis B until the medic explained it to him.
Dr. Richard Lukandwa is a consultant physician at Nakasero hospital in Kampala says Hepatitis B is a viral disease that’s highly infectious - much more than HIV.
The Hepatitis B virus can survive outside the body for at least 7 days. During this time, the virus can still cause infection if it enters the body of a person who is not protected by the vaccine. The incubation period of the virus is 75 days on average, but can vary from 30 to 180 days. The virus may be detected within 30 to 60 days after infection and can persist and develop into chronic hepatitis B. It can also be transmitted sexually.
Whoever is not vaccinated against the disease is at risk of getting infected but the good news is that the body has a natural way of protecting itself. The human immune system can give some protection to the body but people with weak systems catch the disease easily.
Most people with the disease do not experience any symptoms during the acute infection phase.
However, some people have acute illness with symptoms that last several weeks, including yellowing of the skin and eyes (jaundice), dark urine, extreme fatigue, nausea, vomiting and abdominal pain. A small subset of persons with acute hepatitis can develop acute liver failure which can lead to death.
Apart from taking life long medication, the patients also suffer from stigma and Jacob has experienced the rejection that comes with Hepatitis B diagnosis. He says he has been shunned by most people.
The likelihood that infection becomes chronic depends upon the age at which a person becomes infected. Children less than 6 years of age who become infected with the hepatitis B virus are the most likely to develop chronic infections.
It is recommended that one takes his relatives or family members for a check up after testing positive for hepatitis B. This helps to control and manage the spread amongst the other people.
In 2015, the parliamentary committee on health urged parliament and ministry of health to find funds within the budget to address this concern. Members suggested that unless funds for fighting the hepatitis B virus are made available, the budget for health would not be passed. Consequently the budget for hepatitis B was increased from 5 to 10 billion shillings for the FY 2015/16.
A complete dose of hepatitis medication costs up to Shs200,000 and this includes check up and the three doses of the drug taken thrice within 6 months.
However Jacob says he has reservations about the government’s effort in the fight against the viral infection.