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Drugs shortage forces doctors to treat hepatitis B patients with HIV medicine

As the world marked the World Hepatitis day on July 28, several leading figures in the fight against the scourge have warned about the need for early testing to avoid the wrath of the silent killer, write ZURAH NAKABUGO and RACHEAL NUWAHEREZA.

Due to the scarcity and high cost of therapy medicine for treating hepatitis B, some medics have resorted to treating patients with HIV/Aids drugs.

Kenneth Kabagambe, the executive director of the National Organisation for People Living with Hepatitis B said this during events to mark World Hepatitis day on July 28 at Imperial Royale hotel.

The day’s main focus was to raise awareness of the deadly virus since it is one of the leading causes of death globally, accounting for 134 million lives per year.

“Since the medicine for treating hepatitis B is not available in several government hospitals, doctors are left with no option but to treat patients with HIV/Aids drugs since it has the Tenofovir component which is useful in the treatment of hepatitis B. But, other combinations in most HIV/Aids drugs are not needed for hepatitis B patient, which is very dangerous,” he said.

As a result, he also noted that the diversion of HIV/Aids drugs to treat hepatitis B may also lead more complications.

Kabagambe told The Observer that many people living with hepatitis B are not aware that they have this silent infection and only seek treatment when the liver has already developed complications.

“However, hepatitis B has not increased in the country largely due to the increase in testing and awareness of the pandemic,” he said.


In the Global Hepatitis Report 2017, the World Health Organisation (WHO) says there are five main hepatitis viruses – A, B, C, D and E. However, types B and C are deadly.

Hepatitis B is a condition that affects the liver, and can cause liver cancer, liver damage and sometimes complete failure of the liver. 

Hepatitis B virus is spread through contact with blood and body fluids of a person with the disease, blood transfusion of unsafe blood, sharing of sharp objects like needles, sexual contact with an infected person, and mother-to-child transmission, among others.

The symptoms of hepatitis B, which usually appear between one and six months after exposure, include fever, pain in the abdomen, tiredness, low appetite, vomiting and jaundice, which is characterized by urine that appears brown or orange, and yellowed skin or eyes. In many cases, symptoms do not appear, and the disease is only found when the blood is tested.


Kabagambe also noted that hepatitis B diagnosis costs around Shs 500,000, which is still a big challenge in the fightto curb the disease because most patients can’t afford it.

Dr Kenneth Opio from Kiruddu hospital said the cost of testing hepatitis B is expensive for an average Ugandan. Ramathan Mutebi, a pharmacist, also noted that drugs to treat the infection are also expensive, costing about $400. Meanwhile, vaccination against hepatitis B costs between Shs 20,000 and Shs 35,000 in most hospitals in Uganda.


Meanwhile, Uganda has one of the highest prevalence of hepatitis B cases in the world with 3.5 million patients recorded since 2010.  

According to WHO country adviser Dr Kaggwa Mugagga, 80 per cent of liver cancer cases registered at the Uganda Cancer Institute (UCI) is a result of hepatitis B.

Northern Uganda is the most fragile region and has the highest number of people with the infection. He also noted that 90 per cent of hepatitis B patients and 80 per cent of hepatitis C victims are not aware of their status and can unknowingly transmit the virus to others.  


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