Humberto Silva, the man who wants to end hepatitis

Humberto Coelho Neto e Silva, 53, is an enthusiastic man full of energy. Founder of the Brazilian Association of Hepatitis B Carriers, he has transformed his life and the lives of thousands of people around the world by becoming a world leader in the fight against Hepatitis. Born in Santo André, state of São Paulo, with a degree in Advertising and Propaganda, Humberto is a member of the Rotarian Action Group, an association that provides humanitarian services with more than 1.2 million volunteer members worldwide. Within Rotary, he stands out as the creator of the Hepatitis Zero project, which focuses on the prevention, detection, and treatment of viral hepatitis.

As he prepared to make a trip to South Africa in 2010, he discovered he had hepatitis and very advanced cirrhosis. “Since then, I have vowed to God that, regardless of healing or not, I would put all my strength in helping other people affected by this disease,” he told the ATLANTICO team. In the following conversation, Humberto also said he had already had contact with other humanitarian causes before attempting to eradicate hepatitis, and he leaves us abreast of all the actions developed up until then in the fight against hepatitis around the world. 

ATLANTICO – What is the scenario of hepatitis in Brazil and the world? What has been done through the actions and projects in which you participate?

Humberto Silva –More than 3 million people in Brazil have hepatitis and do not know. I founded the Brazilian Association of Hepatitis Carriers in São Paulo (ABPH) and set up a free clinic with state-of-the-art technology. Then came the second in Rio de Janeiro and then in the city of Porto Alegre, Belo Horizonte, Fortaleza and even in a city in Mexico. Regardless of this clinic having served around 70 thousand people for free in recent years, we also do a good job in detecting the disease. The exam is cheap and we offer it free of charge in Brazil. So far, we have done 1 million tests.

ATLANTICO – What is the Brazilian panorama regarding the treatment of Hepatitis? Has the state done its job? How do you dialogue with them to draw attention to this cause?

Humberto Silva – Brazil is a privileged country and people are not aware of the benefits we have with the creation of the Unified Health System (SUS). It is a wonderful system, although the service is still somewhat precarious. Good or bad, it is a system that does not abandon the citizen and attends to hepatitis. In Brazil, most patients affected by the disease receive treatment. In the past, the government only offered medication to patients who had liver problems or a more advanced disease. Things have been improving but to date, there is a delay in the distribution of medicines and we still have 12,000 people in line. However, we believe that this scenario is expected to improve soon. Those who are not having quick access to treatment can go to court to get it. We have no problems regarding that. The biggest problem is diagnosing the disease. Only 10% of Brazilians know they have hepatitis; in the United States, this number ranges from 20-50%.

ATLANTICO – Before you led the fight against hepatitis, did you have any contact with other humanitarian causes?

Humberto Silva – I was president of the Child Care Fund, an NGO that cares for children with cancer through nursing homes and campaigns throughout Brazil. Today, we have a free clinic in Paulista Avenue, Sāo Paulo, for the treatment of children with cancer. Only then did I learn how to act in an NGO on a professional and business level, so that I could be prepared for when I found my personal cause – which ended up becoming a worldwide one.

“Only 10% of Brazilians know they have hepatitis”

ATLANTICO – What was the moment of your hepatitis discovery?

Humberto Silva – In 2010 I had the responsibility of this NGO. We expanded to other places and had jobs to do on the African continent. At that time, I decided to take a trip to South Africa to attend the FIFA World Cup and then I was going to visit some mainland cities to help children with cancer. For this, I needed to take some vaccines and the doctor recommended that I do some tests, including hepatitis C; so, I had this surprise. I usually say that is was thanks to Africa that I discovered hepatitis. I watched the World Cup and did my job with the kids. When I returned to Brazil to treat myself, I had advanced cirrhosis and if I had not discovered it because of the trip, I would have died. I felt blessed to have discovered the disease while most people are unaware they have it. Thanks to this cause, I became what I am today and I realize that it was divine intervention so that I could become part of the philanthropic branch as well as the philanthropic marketing branch.

ATLANTICO – What has changed in recent times regarding the scenario of hepatitis?

Humberto Silva – The scenario changed a lot because hepatitis was a silent disease and there was not much talk about it. The disease started becoming more visible, and there is repercussion in the media. Some 196 countries have already met to reduce disease cases by 2030. However, although they have signed this agreement, countries need to put these actions into practice. The biggest and largest problem with hepatitis is that it must be regarded as a disease to be discovered. Coping is prior to treatment; the contaminated people must be found.

ATLANTICO – And how do people help or engage in this cause?

Humberto Silva – We have our website with a donation platform. We also have a channel to request tests. People with greater possibilities, such as entities, help us a lot whilst taking the opportunity to expose their brands. This help is necessary.

ATLANTICO – How have Rotary’s actions and projects been carried out on the African continent? And what are the next steps?

Humberto Silva – Today we lead actions in more than 200 countries and we are present in several countries in Africa, mainly. We will have the “Pan-African Hepatitis Zero Week” campaign that will cover all countries in Africa. It is estimated that 120 million people in Africa are infected with the virus, a silent catastrophe. The detail is that 30% of the infected will have cirrhosis and need a transplant or may develop liver cancer if they do not find the disease in time. Our mission is to organize these actions in Africa. They will be made in the last week of July and we estimate to discover hundreds of thousands of people who have the virus in the 54 countries, something never seen before. We also have a campaign in Sāo Tomé and Principe as we want it to be the first country to eradicate hepatitis. We’re testing the whole population and will treat all patients. The most frequent route of transmission is blood – so the most important thing is to be careful about donating.

ATLANTICO – Are there other actions being done against hepatitis in the continent?

Humberto Silva – There are other attempts such as the UN pact with the 190 countries. But that was just a signed sheet of paper. Between signing a role and materializing it in practice, a long way must be traveled. 120 million people are infected in Africa and taking care of that requires an audacious step forward. Very little has been done and we as an organization are moving ahead. Rotary eradicated polio in the world; only Afghanistan and Pakistan have not yet been eradicated because they have territories that are difficult to access due to the wars. We want hepatitis to be the next disease to be eradicated.

ATLANTICO – What message would you like to leave those who empathized with this cause?

Humberto Silva – My personal story became a worldwide cause. And on behalf of all the organizations of which I am member, I invite companies, entities, banks and, governments to be part too, because we alone will not be able to save the world. As much as I love our brothers in Africa, I cannot handle it alone.

Hepatitis is characterized as inflammation in the liver caused by bacteria, viruses and also by the consumption of toxic products like alcohol, medicines and some plants. It can be transmitted through unprotected sex, consumption of food or water contaminated by feces, contact with urine or feces of an infected person, and sharing of syringes. The main difficulty for its eradication is its asymptomatic manifestation in the body of the infected person, making the disease not widely known. About 325 million people worldwide live with some form of viral hepatitis, and the disease causes 1.34 million deaths a year. Globally, it is estimated that 71 million people are infected with hepatitis C, but only 20% of them have been tested and are aware of their condition.