On World Hepatitis Day, 25 organisations and individuals from around the world, including Doctors Without Borders, Southern African HIV Clinicians Society and the Treatment Action Campaign have called for the implementation of hepatitis B immunisations at birth and a reform of the national patent laws to promote access to more affordable hepatitis therapies.
“Preventing infant infection is undoubtedly the most important way to reduce the prevalence of the hepatitis B virus,” said Stellenbosch University virologist, Dr. Monique Andersson.
“A safe, effective, and affordable hepatitis B vaccine has been available for over two decades, and remains the backbone of prevention strategies. Yet infants continue to be infected across sub-Saharan Africa because they don’t receive the immunisation early enough.”
Hepatitis B is highly endemic in South Africa and across sub-Saharan Africa, where around 8% of people are chronically infected, and the rates of hepatitis B-related liver cancer are some of the highest in the world. Globally, viral hepatitis causes approximately 1.3 million deaths every year—more than either malaria or tuberculosis—with around 240 million people chronically infected with hepatitis B virus (HBV), and 140 million people with hepatitis C virus (HCV). Either of these viruses can result in liver failure and liver cancer.
This “birth dose” reduces mother-to-child transmission of the hepatitis B virus (HBV). Studies in Africa suggest transmission is currently between 2-30% of infants born to HBV-infected mothers. However, in much of sub-Saharan Africa the birth dose has not been implemented and HBV vaccine coverage remains low.
“The DOH needs to set an example for the region,” said Andersson. “It’s time South Africa and other countries add a hepatitis B birth dose to the national immunisation agenda.”
According to the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC) and MSF individuals already infected with hepatitis battle to pay for the drugs they need because of monopoly pricing in the industry. The organisation said effective treatment for hepatitis B is not readily available in the public sector, and could easily cost around R5 000 a month in the private sector. According to the organisations in India cheap generics are available to treat hepatitis B at the cost of just a couple of hundred rand. According to the TAC’s Anele Yawa this is not the case in SA because of the country’s problematic patent laws.
“South Africa doesn’t examine patent applications, so we grant monopolies to companies for things that aren’t new or innovative—patents that other countries wouldn’t grant,” said Yawa.
Author: Natalia Simon