In 1963, the physician Baruch Blumberg discovered a protein in human blood that, five years later, was found to be part of the virus that causes hepatitis B by virologist Alfred Prince. These discoveries led vaccinologist Maurice Hilleman to design the first vaccine to prevent hepatitis B, which was approved for use in 1981. Blumberg was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his discoveries, and hepatitis B immunization started to spread across the globe.
This vaccine has made hepatitis B a fully preventable disease. Yet, worldwide, 257 million people are hepatitis B carriers. In fact, viral hepatitis cases are increasing globally, with its death toll overtaking that of HIV, malaria, and tuberculosis in 2016. An estimated 1 million patients die from complications related to hepatitis B infection each year, as it can cause scarring of the liver (cirrhosis) and liver cancer.
Why are these numbers so high? The WHO estimates that 9 out of 10 people living with chronic hepatitis B have no idea that they carry the virus – carriers often do not experience any symptoms for years to decades, until progressive liver damage starts to manifest itself. This highlights the need to identify patients earlier, as anti-retroviral medication can manage an existing hepatitis B infection so that patients can live long, happy lives even though chronic hepatitis B cannot be cured. Another cause is lack of resources: hepatitis B is most prevalent in South-East Asia Western Pacific and Africa, where many countries have not yet developed the required healthcare infrastructure for effective vaccination campaigns.
We learned from the history of HIV/AIDS campaigns that to solve a public health problem of this scale, we need a comprehensive program that addresses the multifactorial causes of the health crisis – lack of awareness, limited resources, and underdeveloped healthcare infrastructure. This is where, we believe, data comes in. Over the past years, we have talked to many representatives at the Department of Health, Local Government Units, City Health Offices, and with Doctors, Senators, Councillors – and they all point to the same issue: lack of data.
Various countries have demonstrated that hepatitis prevention programs are cost-effective compared to treating late-stage complications. However, there is no such investment case for the Philippines. But to develop a comprehensive program for hepatitis eradication, legislators need to know how many patients there are, where they are located geographically, what specific care they need, at what frequency, and what it is going to cost to find these patients and organize the treatment supply chain.
This is where HepaHealth comes in. We envision a world where all hepatitis patients are taken care of within the Philippine health system. To get there, we are bridging the data gap by launching small-scale programs to find patients, monitor their health, and connect them to treatment. This allows us to gather the data required to build an investment case for comprehensive hepatitis care. We employ a multi-stakeholder approach and work with fellow social enterprises, pharmaceutical companies and distributors, healthcare professionals, and legislators at various levels. Importantly, with patient representation at all levels of our organization, we work with and within the community we aim to serve.
Our long term vision is to translate our data into policy recommendations to integrate hepatitis care into the national health system, and ultimately contribute to a framework for hepatitis B eradication throughout the region. Join our mission – for a hepatitis free Philippines.