Sunday, 26 August 2012

World Hepatitis Day 2012: Is Enough Being Done to Help Women

In 2010, it was decided that every July 28th would be known as World Hepatitis Day. As one of four diseases to be granted a specific day (the other three being Malaria, HIV/AIDS, and TB), Hepatitis is known as a ‘silent disease’. Across the world some countries are tackling Hepatitis head on, but many are failing to give the disease the recognition it needs in order for it to be prevented. As a result of this, millions of women across the world are suffering.

For women, the lack of attention paid to Hepatitis can come with serious health implications. Unfortunately, it is women who are more at risk, and women who are less likely to access life-saving treatment. Hepatitis E, which is spread via the fecal oral route, is usually contracted as a result of poor hygiene practices and unsafe drinking water. Women who are pregnant are particularly susceptible to the disease; once they have caught it, there is no specific cure, and they are at risk of liver failure. In addition to this, the disease can spread to the fetus, and increase the risk of miscarriage and stillbirth.

Other more lethal forms of Hepatitis, such as B and C, are spread through the exchange of bodily fluids. Both types are on the rise among drug users and sex workers, and with many sex workers in the developing world experiencing poor access to barrier contraceptives, routine vaccinations, and sexual health screening, women are naturally at risk of catching the disease. As many female sex workers do not carry condoms due to the stigma attached, cannot afford costly Hepatitis B vaccinations, and are not aware of this silent disease, they often only recognize the signs of Hepatitis when it is too late.

Although 2012’s World Hepatitis Day highlighted successes in Australasia and the Far East, there are many areas of the world that are failing to meet the demands of this silent disease. For example, in Ghana a vaccination program is available, but at the cost of 60Cedi--a price that many Ghanians cannot afford. The same pattern is repeated across many African countries. However, the governments of such countries could learn from Nigeria, as its health service has made significant attempts to combat the disease.

It is now the case that a hotline is available in Nigeria to those who feel they may be at risk of, or have developed, hepatitis. This hotline allows Nigerians to access advice on treatment, symptoms, and prevention. In addition to this, it can direct those who call towards doctors who can treat the disease, as well as vaccination programs. This could be the way forward for women who otherwise would not be able to access vaccinations. Ultimately, what benefits women will also benefit their husbands and children. In addition to this, over 10,000 children were issued toothbrushes to combat Hepatitis types A and E, which are spread due to poor hygiene. This is a great example of how it is possible to combine prevention and education en-masse.

Although these measures are great, they should not be seen as silver bullets in the battle against this deadly disease. All governments, not just Nigeria’s, should make it their mission to educate those who are at risk. Sexual health programs across Nigerian schools would alert both men and women to the ways that Hepatitis is spread, and how to prevent it. Similarly, routine vaccinations for types A and B would significantly reduce the disease’s prevalence. As it stands, only 9% of Nigerian people are vaccinated against the disease, despite it being 50 x more infectious than HIV, and 19 million people having it. Finally, the stigma that surrounds the use of barrier contraceptives needs to be eliminated. This is particularly the case for female sex workers, who often fail to use them for fear of being persecuted.

In 2012, Hepatitis continues to be known as the ‘silent disease’. The World Health Organization have taken a big step by introducing World Hepatitis Day, and now governments across the world need to take a strong stance in order to prevent the disease. If each country were to honour this day by introducing educational programs, greater access to barrier contraceptives, and free vaccination programs, the prevalence of this disease could be reduced drastically.

08058206916 - Nigerian Hepatitis Helpline

By Laura McKeever

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