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High prevalence of viral hepatitis among healthcare workers in Africa

Keith Alcorn
21 June 2021
Leonie Broekstra/

Almost 7% of healthcare workers in Africa have hepatitis B and 5% have hepatitis C, according to a systematic review of published studies. Greater efforts to vaccinate against hepatitis B and improve infection control are needed to protect healthcare workers and their patients, say the Ethiopian researchers who carried out the review.

Healthcare workers are at higher risk of exposure to blood-borne viruses through needlestick injuries, blood splashes or contact with blood during medical procedures or everyday care for patients. Several studies have estimated that healthcare workers have four times the risk of contracting hepatitis B when compared to the general population.

Despite the higher risk of infection, a 2018 meta-analysis estimated that only one in four healthcare workers in Africa has been immunised against hepatitis B.

The prevalence of hepatitis B and C among healthcare workers in Africa is unclear and may vary widely between countries. Ethiopian researchers at Madda Walabu University School of Medicine in Goba carried out a systematic review and meta-analysis of studies reporting the prevalence of hepatitis B or C in healthcare workers to arrive at better estimates of the burden of each infection.

They identified 44 studies, most frequently in healthcare workers in Cameroon (5), Egypt (6), Ethiopia (5) and Nigeria (8). Only two studies investigated prevalence in countries in southern Africa (both in South Africa). Eight studies were published before 2010, all but one was cross-sectional (reporting a single measurement of prevalence) and the sample sizes were less than 500 in 34 of 44 studies.

Hepatitis B prevalence was measured by hepatitis B surface antigen (indicator of chronic infection). Hepatitis C prevalence was measured by hepatitis C antibody, indicating exposure to hepatitis C.

The pooled prevalence of hepatitis B in the studies was 6.8% (95% CI 5.6-7.9), not significantly different from a general population estimate of 6.1% published in 2017.

The pooled prevalence of hepatitis C was 5.5% (95% CI 3.5-7.6), more than twice the level estimated in the general population (2.9%, estimated in 2016).

However, prevalence varied by region. Hepatitis B prevalence was highest in west Africa (11.6%, 95% CI 8.2-15.1), and lowest in north Africa (3.5%, 95% CI 2.4-4.5), possibly reflecting differences in vaccination rates. Hepatitis C prevalence was highest in north Africa (11.2%, 95% CI 5.4-17) and lowest in east Africa (1.3%, 95% CI 0.1-2.4).

Hepatitis B prevalence was highest in studies published before 2001 and lowest in studies published after 2011, reflecting the impact of infant vaccination. Hepatitis C prevalence was higher in studies published after 2011.

Laboratory staff appeared to be at slightly higher risk of occupational exposure; 7.3% of laboratory staff had hepatitis B compared to 6.3% of physicians.

In the countries covered by the studies, universal health coverage ranged from 38% in Nigeria and 42% in Cameroon and Sierra Leone to 54% in Egypt and 59% in Rwanda and South Africa.

The World Health Organization recommends that healthcare workers at risk of exposure to blood should be vaccinated against hepatitis B, including those without documented evidence of vaccination


Atlaw D et al. Hepatitis B and C virus infection among healthcare workers in Africa: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Environmental Health and Preventive Medicine, 26: 61, 2021.