NOhep Supporter Spotlight: Sheikh Omar Bittaye

Sheihk Omar Bittaye is a specialist physician, a founding member of the National Hepatitis Association (NAHA), and a NOhep Medical Visionary. He is currently a trainee fellow in Gastroenterology under the West African College of Physicians.

After completing my specialist training, I realised that many young people were dying from hepatitis-related complications in The Gambia. Hepatitis B is very prevalent here, with nearly 10 per cent of the population living with the virus. This means that almost every family in The Gambia may be affected by hepatitis B. Discovering this motivated me to join the Gambia Hepatitis Intervention Study (GHIS) and the Prevention of Liver Fibrosis and Cancer in Africa (PROLIFICA) projects as a research clinician to learn more about hepatitis B and its related complications.

As a specialist physician, I provide care to Gastroenterology patients, including people living with hepatitis B. I am also a lecturer at the University of The Gambia, which gives me the opportunity to train nursing, public health and medical students on hepatitis prevention and treatment. Increasing awareness among healthcare professionals is vital to the elimination of viral hepatitis, and educating peers is one of the five key principles of a NOhep Medical Visionary.

I am also a founding member of the National Hepatitis Association, which was set up by the Gambia Liver Team in collaboration with patients and their families. Our main aim is to empower people with knowledge about viral hepatitis and its consequences and to help them develop skills to effectively participate in policy development aimed at improving viral-hepatitis related service delivery in The Gambia. For example, we run training activities to empower NAHA executives and members, and organise outreach screening activities and advocacy programmes. We also work with external stakeholders such as the World Health Organisation, Ministry of Health, and the Medical Research Council, in the fight against viral hepatitis.

Through engaging in high-level advocacy, NAHA has seen several successes. For example, NAHA has been officially recognised by the government, and our members played a key role in the drafting and development of the National Hepatitis Strategic Plan and Policy Document. We have also successfully implemented strategies for nationwide administration of the birth dose vaccine, and nationwide screening of all blood donations has been implemented as a result of our advocacy. We are also hopeful that, with the support of her Excellency the First Lady of The Gambia, Fatoumata Bah Barrow, we will be able to implement a nationwide screening and treatment programme, and establish a national cancer control plan. Advocacy is an important tool in the fight against hepatitis, and I believe it should be done at all levels. When you’re engaging with higher authorities, a simple and feasible strategy is very effective.

The biggest challenge that stands in the way of hepatitis elimination is difficulty in getting funding to implement the different interventions in our 2030 elimination agenda. To overcome this challenge, we must establish private-public partnerships and integrate hepatitis into the existing Global Fund project.

COVID-19 has had an immense impact on our services, and we have been working hard to mitigate them. However, the pandemic has led to the provision of laboratory and radiologic instruments, creating a strengthened health sector which may be beneficial for people living with hepatitis in the future.

NOhep to me echoes the voices of all the people who have lived or are living with hepatitis. It provides a platform for everyone to campaign for the elimination of viral hepatitis. I hope to see a future free from hepatitis and its complications.