Hepatitis B kills more than 11,000 people annually

Afghan Ministry of Public Health (MoPH) officials estimate hepatitis B kills more than 11,000 people annually, with 7 percent of the country’s population already infected.

Sayed Bibi's family has been devastated by hepatitis B. “I have been suffering from this illness for the past three years and the same illness killed my mother. Now my elder son is also suffering from this sickness,” Sayed, a mother-of-eight, said from her bed in the crowded room she shares with other patients at Kabul's only infectious disease treatment facility.

“At first I was only feeling mild weakness and abdominal pain but it slowly worsened and now my health is deteriorating by the day,” Sayed said.

“The disease [hepatitis B] has become a major health problem infecting an estimated 100,000 people annually in Afghanistan and resulting in considerable human loss,” Abdullah Fahim, a MoPH spokesman, said.

Hepatitis B is a viral liver disease that may be acute or chronic and can be life-threatening. Symptoms include fever, malaise, fatigue, jaundice, abdominal tenderness and elevated liver enzymes. Sexual contact, shared needles or contaminated blood products could transmit the virus, experts said.

The disease was spreading rapidly in Afghan communities and there were no proper measures in place to cope with the growing number of patients, health officials said.

“The number of patients [with hepatitis B] referring here is increasing every day,” Dr Murrad Mamozai, deputy director of the 200-bed Antoni infectious disease hospital in Kabul, the Afghan capital, said.

Mamozai said nine of the 460 patients admitted to the facility with hepatitis during 2004 and 21 of the 540 patients admitted during 2005 had died.

Ministry officials said it had launched a vaccination drive targeting children aged under two, but conceded that due to a lack of funds it could not reach all those in need.

"It is the first time in the history of the country that we are launching a hepatitis B vaccination drive where some 930,000 children will be targeted until the end of 2006,” Fahim said.

Health officials said that low levels of awareness, millions of refugees returning from neighbouring countries and multiple uses of contaminated needles, particularly among drug abusers, were the main causes of the disease.

“Lots of efforts are needed to raise the level of understanding and awareness among the communities regarding this deadly disease,” Fahim said.