Prevention is better than cure, goes the cliché, which is absolutely true. It is so simple to understand that a community wouldn’t need to spend too many resources on the treatment of a disease, only if it proactively takes a few measures to prevent disease from occurring in the first place.

Here’s are some alarming statistics in this context, revealed by a survey report published recently by The Economist Intelligence Unit, more than 15 million people are suffering from Hepatitis B (HBV) or Hepatitis C (HCV) in Pakistan. The occurrence of HCV has increased sharply from to 6.7% in 2008 to 17% in 2017. The nation needs to respond urgently to this impending health crisis, because it threatens a staggering 8.33 percent of the country’s population and makes Pakistan a country with the second highest prevalence of Hepatitis, in the world.

Behind this endemic is continued negligence. Let’s face it: the ineffective healthcare system in Pakistan needs to do a lot more to protect the masses. For decades, public-health facilities all over Pakistan, especially in the rural areas, have remained a challenge for the authorities – Governments, regulators and for the common man who needs it. The myriad issues around medical care including; its access, affordability, insufficient budget allocations and lack of public-awareness, are putting millions of lives at risk.

Over the years, the government and health authorities could not pay enough attention to the treatment of HBV and HCV, so Pakistan failed to solve this problem at the grassroots level.  However, policymakers are now waking up to the scale and severity of the disease that is threatening millions of lives across the country. Much needed policy changes have been made recently, to ensure the prevention of Hepatitis among the masses. According to one study, tackling HCV effectively will save more than 320,000 lives and US$2.6bn in direct costs between 2015 and 2030.

On World Hepatitis Day, in July 2019, the government announced an ambitious plan to test and screen individuals to eliminate the disease by 2030.  The aim is to test and treat 70% of the population by 2023. However, implementation of a prevention plan on a national scale is not an easy task. It will be a costly and time-consuming process. A third-world country, which is facing economic challenges, will find it even more difficult to allocate ample resources to counter one single disease. Under the new plan, the federal government of Pakistan seeks to procure tests and medication and distribute them to the provincial authorities. Achieving this objective will require a total of $3 billion. Pakistan can expect financial help for this purpose, from the Asian Development Bank and World Bank, but maintaining complete transparency in this expenditure and effectiveness in its execution will need cohesive efforts and support from all the socio-economic sectors in the country.

There is a need to focus on the aspect of low public-awareness and spread nationwide information about HBV and HCV. Experts believe that, the biggest cause of HCV and HBV is the use of contaminated syringes in medical facilities. It is estimated that 17-50% of injections in Pakistan are administered with reused syringes, which acutely increases the risk of transmission. This is followed by unsafe transfusion practices at blood banks. Poor waste management at healthcare facilities is another major issue, which results in the improper disposal of needles and blades in hospitals and the use of contaminated razors and blades at men’s salons. Apart from screening and testing, the national plan also aims to address and fix the issue of such unsafe practices. Moreover, district health commissions are to be given greater powers to monitor and penalize clinics that are using unsafe methods.

Apart from the healthcare authorities and regulators, the public must also join this initiative to eradicate Hepatitis. If the public is made more aware of the risks associated with unsafe medical practices, the transmission of the viral hepatitis diseases can be reduced. As such, a consistent and coordinated effort to educate the public on part of the stakeholders can drastically improve the situation. This is where technology can play its role.

With increasing digitalization in Pakistan, mobile technology presents various solutions as a great tool, to help prevent diseases by spreading awareness about them. Pakistan has both, a high smartphone penetration and strong 4G-network coverage. A tailored message by the government sent out to all users, promises to be the most basic and common form of communication, for spreading knowledge about such diseases. We recently saw similar usage in campaigns on different diseases awareness in Pakistan. The same can be done to raise this issue and ensure collective action for battling this morbid epidemic of Hepatitis.

The government understands that this noble cause will need active support and commitment from numerous stakeholders, belonging to various sectors, both public and private. This is the only way to overcome the challenges associated with fighting Hepatitis, and protect our future generations. The goals and strategies in this Action Plan should be focused on guiding all individuals and organizations, to strengthen the society’s collective response to HBV and HCV. In the fight against these infections, the experts should analyze the data, to identify and address critical gaps and improve the surveillance of viral hepatitis cases. The vaccinations against hepatitis A and hepatitis B for children and vulnerable adults, promise to eliminate mother-to-child transmission of both these ailments, while reducing the transmission of viral hepatitis, among patients and health workers at medical institutions.