World Hepatitis Day: Stigma remains the biggest issue

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228 July marks World Hepatitis Day and this morning, SANAC and key stakeholders held a webinar to mark the official launch of the award-winning ‘Connecting with Care’ short film which shares insights into the benefits of reaching drug users with targeted interventions.

The interventions include providing them with sterile equipment to prevent the spread of viral hepatitis, HIV and other diseases through shared needles, syringes and other commodities. Rehabilitation programmes to get them off the streets and provide them with a safer environment prove beneficial in getting them to quit.

One of the themes that came out strongly during the engagement is the need to address stigma. All panelists were unanimous that stigma and the lack of access to health care are some of the biggest issues hampering progress in the response.

Dr. Mark Sonderup, a Hepatologist at the Liver Clinic of Groote Schuur Hospital is featured in the film, where he proclaims, “I think the biggest elephant in the room is stigma!”

Hepatitis B and C is common among people who inject drugs (PWID) since it transmits in a similar fashion to HIV – this is through blood from an infected person. The transmission occurs when needles and syringes are shared or during unprotected sex, especially anal sex where bleeding is common.

Dr Zukiswa Pinini from the National Department of Health said Hepatitis is the 7th leading cause of death and the most common cause of liver cancer. She said there is an urgent need to reach everyone with interventions that will disrupt the spread of viral hepatitis, especially drug users who are living with HIV.

“There is no reason for people to succumb to viral hepatitis because it can be treated and we have a vaccine for Hepatitis A and B,” she said.

Goal 3 of the current National Strategic Plan stipulates that controlling the spread of HIV cannot be successful unless key and vulnerable populations such as drug users are reached with targeted interventions. These are words by the SANAC Acting CEO, Coceka Nogoduka during the webinar.

“Stigma and structural barriers present challenges that hamper progress in our response,” she said.

Nogoduka also added that, “In our quest to flatten the COVID-19 curve, we unfortunately went off course in our HIV response efforts, including work on drug users.”

The Deputy Minister of the National Department of Social Development, the Hon. Hendrietta Bogopane-Zulu also participated in the discussion. She said that political will and a strong collaboration between government, civil society and development partners is key in designing interventions for drug users.
“The eThekwini Metro is a key demonstration of this fact,” she said alluding to the state-of-the-art rehabilitation facility provided by government in the city of Durban.

“Policy reforms are also seamless when there’s political will and partnership among key stakeholders,” added Bogopane-Zulu.

The short film ‘Connecting with Care’ can be viewed here: