Hepatitis is an inflammation of the liver usually caused by a virus, of which there are 5 main types: A, B, C, D and E. Worldwide, someone dies every 30 seconds from a hepatitis-related illness, and over 300 million people are estimated to be living with hepatitis B or C. With 2021 marking 40 years since the first hepatitis B vaccine was made commercially available, we explored the views of healthcare professionals (HCPs) on this deadly, but preventable disease.
HCPs stress that #HepCantWait on World Hepatitis Day
When observing the online conversation about hepatitis (all types) among HCPs in the month of July 2021, it is clear to see that the largest surge of conversation resulted from World Hepatitis Day which is celebrated annually on the 28th July.
Healthcare professionals from around the world engaged with this year’s World Hepatitis Day theme – ‘Hepatitis Can’t Wait’ often using the hashtags #HepCantWait or #HepatitisCantWait. Many HCPs encouraged their followers to make a pledge to support their hepatitis community by raising awareness or funds, or to even get themselves tested for hepatitis. Others shared examples of medical interventions for which the hepatitis population can’t afford to wait, including the hepatitis B birth dose vaccination for newborns, access to testing for those unaware they are living with hepatitis, and upscaled treatments for hepatitis B patients.
Concern over the impact of COVID-19 on hepatitis management
One key concern raised by HCPs in relation to this campaign was the devastating impact that the COVID-19 pandemic has had on the management of hepatitis cases in the last 18 months. They described how the numbers of patients accessing screening and treatment for hepatitis have declined hugely, as hepatitis and other illnesses have been sidelined due to the overwhelming focus on COVID-19. Some HCPs shared their hopes however, that lessons learned from the coronavirus pandemic, for example, accelerated vaccine development and widespread access to rapid testing, can be carried forward and applied to other areas of medicine including hepatitis. This is a view that many in the pharmaceutical industry also carry as seen at the 2021 USA pharma event.
HCPs inspired by Nobel Prize award to develop new hepatitis treatments
When we zoom out and look back at the HCP hepatitis-related online conversation over the last year, it becomes apparent that World Hepatitis Day was in fact not the most prominent conversation driver over the last 12 months. The surge in conversation due to World Hepatitis Day in July 2021 was comparatively much lower than an earlier spike seen at the start of October 2020, when the Nobel Prize in Medicine was jointly awarded to three scientists for the discovery of the hepatitis C virus: Harvey J. Alter, Michael Houghton and Charles M. Rice.
HCPs praised the fact that this award recognises the excellent work of the three scientists, describing their discovery made in 1989 as one of the greatest breakthroughs in the recent history of medicine. Because of their groundbreaking work, others have since developed effective blood tests and new antiviral medicines meaning hepatitis C is now curable and the lives of millions of patients have been saved. Some HCPs though, whilst appreciating the positive acknowledgement of the award, state that the Nobel Prize itself does not save any more lives, so now the field must continue to take practical steps forward towards eliminating the disease.
Hepatitis C the most discussed by HCPs online
Within the online HCP conversation, hepatitis C was the most discussed hepatitis infection type, partly due to the conversation about the Nobel Prize seen in the spike in October. This was followed by hepatitis B, with a discussion that saw HCPs covering a variety of topics including conversations about hepatitis B vaccination. This was often in relation to the COVID-19 pandemic, when HCPs encouraged the public about the similarities between the COVID-19 vaccines and the hepatitis B vaccine, in efforts to relieve anxieties about the make-up of the spike protein vaccines or mandating healthcare workers to receive the immunisation.
HCPs use #LiverTwitter to advance the field of hepatology
When using Twitter to discuss hepatitis online, we observed that the most commonly used hashtag in posts from healthcare professionals was #LiverTwitter (2,696 posts), even more popular than simply #Hepatitis (2,024 posts). According to a recent article in PubMed, #LiverTwitter forms an academic forum on social media which is advancing the field of hepatology by “disseminating content on chronic liver diseases to a global audience”. Here, the hashtag is used to collate Twitter posts about all manner of hepatitis-related information including guidelines, study data, and educational tweetorials.
HCPs confident of a hepatitis-free future
With the World Health Organization outlining their goal to eliminate viral hepatitis as a public health problem by 2030, many are keen to see this as a reality. In this article we have seen groundbreaking scientific achievements celebrated, and HCPs playing their part in raising awareness of the fact that hepatitis can’t wait. Whilst a resurgence of hepatitis cases is expected after the end of the current pandemic, HCPs remain optimistic that if we can apply the learnings from COVID-19, there will be a hepatitis free-future.
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