TRANSMITTED in ways similar to those through which HIV is spread, Hepatitis B is incurable and most sufferers do not show signs. The chronic form will gradually progress to complications such as scarring of the liver, liver cancer and chronic liver failure. Agnes Kyotalengerire reports.
Prevalence rates per region
Hellena Achan was diagnosed with Hepatitis B virus when she was 32 years old. â€œI had a fever, headache, stomachache and my eyes turned yellow. A blood test revealed Hepatitis B virus,â€ she recalls.
Achan, now 35, and a mother of two, was fortunate to get timely treatment.
Hepatitis B virus remains a serious global health problem, with two billion people having ever been infected worldwide and 400 million still having the chronic form of the infection.
Hepatitis B virus is the 10th leading cause of death worldwide.
Currently, it is estimated that 10% of the Ugandan population (about 3.3 million people) has chronic Hepatitis B infection.
According to recent media reports, 10 people in Kitgum district were suspected to have the virus.
Dr. Ponsiano Ocama, a lecturer and liver specialist at Makerere University College of Health Science, observes that the distribution of the virus varies from area to area, with the highest figures being recorded in northern Uganda, where 20 to 24% of the population has chronic infection.
The lowest rate of about 4% has been registered in south-western Uganda. In Kampala, the prevalence rate falls between 6 and 7%, Kasese at 10%, North central (Gulu, Lira) is at 20%, West Nile at 19% and north-east at about 24% .
How it is spread
â€œHepatitis B virus is found in blood and body fluids,â€ notes Dr.Ocama.
He says mother-to-child is the most common mode of transmission, with about 95% of babies getting it at birth from an infected mother or within the first five years of birth through the child-to-child mode, also referred to as the horizontal transmission.
Other ways of transmission include sharing of sharp instruments, sexual contact with an infected person and blood transfusion.
However, Ocama notes that a mother cannot infect the baby through breastfeeding because there is a low concentration of the virus in breast milk, as well as in sweat, urine and saliva. Also, touching or shaking hands of an infected person cannot spread the virus.
Ocama warns against discriminating against people infected with the Hepatitis B virus.
Signs and symptoms
â€œOver 95% of Hepatitis B virus patients do not show signs,â€ says Ocama.
He says when people get infected with the virus in early childhood, they may not show symptoms for decades.
A few patients will develop symptoms in the acute phase of infection, which may include fever, yellowing of the eyes, headache, joint pains and vomiting. Hepatitis B may be mistaken for malaria. In most cases, these symptoms will disappear on their own, but this does not mean that the virus is gone. A few patients die in the acute phase.
Diagnosis is by blood tests. The tests can be done in commercial laboratories around town. The results can be ready in about 10 minutes.
Health complications of Hepatitis B
Dr. Ocama describes Hepatitis B as a germ, which causes inflammation of the liver.
Hepatitis B virus causes a serious liver disease and the virus is 100 times more infectious than HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. Once infected, there is an approximately one in 10 chances that the body will not get rid of the virus.
At its most severe form, Hepatitis B can damage the liver permanently and even kill. The chronic form will gradually progress to complications such as scarring of the liver (cirrhosis), liver cancer and chronic liver failure. All these conditions may present with abdominal pain, swelling of the belly and limbs, mental confusion and vomiting of blood.
The liver is one of the vital organs in the body and it is involved in processing most of the food we eat and keeping the blood healthy.
Is Hepatitis B virus curable?
Dr. Ssali Makumbi, the head of disease surveillance at the health ministry, says there is no cure for Hepatitis B virus, but there are treatments, which can suppress the virus and prevent the liver infection from spreading.
Some of the drugs are taken orally, while others are injectable.
â€œIf infected, one should consult a doctor to inquire whether he/she needs treatment because not every infected person requires treatment,â€ Makumbi advises.
Hepatitis B virus vaccines are effective.
â€œIn 2002, the health ministry incorporated the Hepatitis B virus vaccination into the infant immunisation schedule.
â€œSo when the children grow into adults, they will be protected,â€ Makumbi affirms.
He adds that on World Hepatitis Day, which is July 28, the Government launched a national health workersâ€™ vaccination against the virus because they are predisposed to infection.
â€œFor effective protection, one requires three doses,â€ says Ocama.
He explains that the doses are taken in three phases; the first time, one month later and at six months.
The Hepatitis B virus vaccine is available in pharmacies around town. A single dose costs about sh20,000, with the entire dose costing sh60,000. The vaccine is also available in government health centres.
Who is at risk?
Everyone who lives in areas with high prevalence of Hepatitis B virus (more than 8%) is prone. The other predisposed category include health workers because they get in contact with many patients. People who get frequent blood transfusions, for example, those with sickle cell anaemia and those whose partners are infected are also at risk.
What you should do
Hepatitis B 100 times deadlier than HIV