West Pokot is calling on the national government to help the county curb hepatitis B infections.
Every year, at least 60 people test positive for hepatitis B, and according to recent research by the Ministry of Health, 13 in every 100 people (especially in North Pokot Sub-county) have hepatitis B, even though they do not know it. In 2017, three people including one health worker died from hepatitis B due to lack of medical care.
“The infectious disease, which spreads through contact with body fluids, is dangerous, and the rate at which it is spreading is alarming,” County Health and Sanitation Executive Geoffrey Lipale, recently told reporters, while calling on the national government to intervene with urgent mass vaccination.
“We need to screen more people and vaccinate those who are not infected,” he said, and added that there is need for aggressive public education to eradicate the disease.
“Everyone should take steps to prevent hepatitis B,” said the health official, adding that lack of awareness on the causes of the viral infection and treatment options are a major challenge in its containment.
“We are now mapping the most affected areas in Chepareria Kacheliba, Alale, Miskwony and Kodich, ahead of a vaccination drive.
“We want to prevent the disease because once someone gets it, there is no cure,” added Mr Lipale, who said that the county had partnered with the national government to distribute 4,032 vaccine doses.
Most of the affected areas are remote, making it difficult for patients to get to hospital due to lack of transport.
Health workers also face difficulties reaching affected residents. The other challenge is that many do not know they have been infected, hence they are diagnosed when it is too late to intervene.
The health executive called on residents to dispose faeces in toilets, live in well-ventilated houses, and drink boiled water to protect themselves from infection.
According to Governor John Lonyangapuo, the county has vaccinated all health workers and county staff and is now moving to vaccinate residents in hepatitis hotspots.
Hepatitis B virus causes liver inflammation, and if the infection becomes chronic (lasting more than six months), it increases the risk of developing liver cancer, liver cirrhosis (permanent scarring that affects liver function) or liver failure, when the organ shuts down and a transplant is needed.
The virus is passed from person to person through blood, semen, saliva, vaginal secretions and other body fluids. Pregnant women infected with the virus can pass it to their babies during childbirth. Most adults with hepatitis B recover fully, but infants and children are vulnerable to chronic infection.
Symptoms appear one to four months after infection, though some people are asymptomatic. Symptoms include abdominal pain, dark urine, fever, joint pain, loss of appetite, nausea, vomiting, weakness, fatigue, and jaundice (yellowing of skin and whites of the eyes).
Those with these symptoms are advised to consult a doctor without delay. Treatment within 24 hours of exposure to the virus minimises risk of full-blown infection.
A vaccine is recommended for newborns and children and adolescents who missed scheduled vaccination; those living with someone who has hepatitis B; health workers and other people who come into contact with blood and body fluids; those at risk of sexually transmitted infections; injecting drug users; travellers to an area with high hepatitis B rates and people with kidney failure.
“The younger you are when you get hepatitis B (newborns and children under the age of five are most vulnerable), the higher the risk that the infection will become chronic. Chronic infection may go undetected for years until the person becomes seriously ill with liver disease,” said West Pokot Director of Health Norbert Obuya.