Multi-stakeholder partnership highlights awareness and screening as first step in combating Hepatitis B
At present, approximately 300 million people are living with viral hepatitis worldwide. In the Philippines, Hepatitis B is said to be the leading cause of liver damage resulting in liver cirrhosis and liver cancer. Studies show that our country has a hepatitis B carrier rate of around 9-16 percent, or out of 10 people, at least one is a carrier of Hepatitis B. Yet information about its spread and treatment remains scarce.
Apart from being a serious health threat, another burden lies in the discrimination or stigma that infected individuals receive from society. Hepatitis B is hyperendemic in the Philippines. It can happen to anyone regardless of social status, education, religion, gender, and sexual orientation.
Hepatitis B is a major public health concern in the Philippines, but due to lack of awareness, many of those who have this viral disease may not even know they have it until it’s too late. Hence, the spread of this deadly virus remains uncontained.
“A silent killer”
Hepatitis means “inflamed liver.” Hepatitis B is the most common serious liver infection in the world and it is caused by the Hepatitis B virus (HBV) that attacks and injures the liver cells.
HBV is transmitted through blood and infected bodily fluids. According to Dr. Roberto De Guzman of the Hepatology Society of the Philippines, the leading cause of HBV transmission in the Philippines is from an infected mother to her newborn during pregnancy or childbirth. It can also be passed on to others through direct contact with blood, unprotected sex, injection drug users, and needlestick or sharp instrument injuries.
HBV is a “silent killer” because most people are asymptomatic when they are newly infected or chronically infected. As a consequence, they unknowingly spread the virus to others and continue the silent spread of hepatitis B.
The disease can either be acute or chronic. Acute Hepatitis B refers to the early part of the infection when the virus is newly acquired. If the HBV persists for more than 6 months in the blood, it is likely to develop into Chronic Hepatitis B. For people who are chronically infected but don’t have symptoms, their liver continues to be silently attacked by the virus, which then develops into severe liver diseases such as liver cirrhosis and liver cancer.
The good news is that Hepatitis B is preventable and treatable. There is a simple blood test to diagnose a Hepatitis B infection. Screening or testing is the only way to ascertain if one is infected with HBV or not.
Screening for Hepatitis B is readily available in most hospitals, laboratory clinics, and select local health centers. Getting tested not only brings awareness to one’s current state of health but also helps in reducing the prevalence rate in the country.
A partnership for health
Looking for the missing millions infected with Hepatitis B is a challenging process and only by instituting an adequate Hepatitis B screening program can we narrow the gap between timely HBV treatment and the development of its complications.
The local government of Paranaque led by Mayor Edwin L. Olivarez and pharmaceutical company A. Menarini Philippines have partnered to offer the residents of Paranaque free Hepatitis B screening through the Hep, Hep… ‘Wag Pabayaan ang Hepatitis-B Program. This comprehensive program will address the inadequacies of previous screening programs since it will include the importance of linkage to care by providing those with chronic HBV infection access to antiviral medications as well as give proper education and information.
This program is endorsed by the Hepatology Society of the Philippines and the Yellow Warriors Society of the Philippines, a volunteer group that aims to help Paranaquenos raise awareness on the disease as well as identify and treat patients with HBV to curb its transmission. Moreover, they are determined to fight the stigma against Hepatitis B patients so that they can have equal opportunities for employment in the country.
A health forum was held at the Mayor’s Hall in Paranaque City last November 25, 2020, which discussed the burden of the disease and emphasized the importance of proper HBV screening, diagnosis, treatment, and patient management with local healthcare professionals.
Dr. Olga Z. Virtusio, the City Health Officer of Paranaque, elaborated on the city’s Hepatitis B Program followed by Dr. Roberto De Guzman’s lay lecture on the epidemiology of Hepatitis B. The forum attendants also listened to a patient testimonial by Patrick Saburit, the President of Yellow Warriors Society Philippines, which aimed to provide a better understanding of their current struggle with the disease.
Through the Hep, Hep… ‘Wag Pabayaan ang Hepatitis-B program, the proponents encouraged the public to take part in the advocacy by being proactive in combating the disease. This can only be done through proactive testing and screening as a preventive measure especially in a country with a high prevalence of Hepatitis B like the Philippines.
Ninia E. Torres, the General Manager of A. Menarini Philippines, and Vandolph L. Quizon, Paranaque City’s Councilor for Health, announced their commitment to ensuring the success of the Hepatitis B program by providing accessible Hepatitis B services at the primary level for early diagnosis and treatment.
“Hepatitis B doesn’t just affect physical health, it also affects one’s mental health,” said Mario Jimenez, Head of Special Services in Paranaque. “This is why we must encourage our kababayans to go to the health centers and have themselves screened for Hepatitis B.”
Patrick Saburit echoed this sentiment during his patient testimonial. He shared how many members of the Yellow Warriors also fell into depression because of the discrimination that they faced in their lives. He then called the local government to support a bill for better employment opportunities for Filipinos with Hepatitis B.
In 2012, The Republic Act No. 10526 was passed to declare the month of January of every year as “Liver Cancer and Viral Hepatitis Awareness and Prevention Month.” During this month, the Department of Health conducts regular screenings, dispenses medication, and monitors the spread of Hepatitis B all over the country. A schedule of online workshops about viral hepatitis is also available on the DOH’s website.
Paranaque residents are encouraged to schedule regular visits every six months (or at least every year) with local health care providers who are knowledgeable about Hepatitis B so they can monitor their liver health through blood tests or diagnostic imaging. The advocacy is guided by the belief that if we do not find and treat the undiagnosed, more people will suffer and lives will continue to be lost.
This multi-stakeholder activity is in support of the World Health Organization’s call to reduce new infections and deaths from chronic Hepatitis B by making screenings accessible to the public.
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