The global prevalence of hepatitis B in children under age five has dropped to under one per cent– down from five per cent in the pre-vaccine decades between the 1980s and early 2000s, according to the World Health Organization.
“Today’s milestone means that we have dramatically reduced the number of cases of liver damage and liver cancer in future generations. No infant should grow up only to die of hepatitis B because they were not vaccinated” WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said. He made the statement on Tuesday, July 28, the World Hepatitis Day.
The theme for 2020 is “Hepatitis free future”.
Preventing mother to child transmission
Dr. Tedros said that preventing mother to child transmission of hepatitis B was the most important strategy for controlling the disease and saving lives. He gave a call for intensified efforts to test pregnant women, expand access to hepatitis B immunization and provide antiviral prophylaxis to women who need it.
The WHO said that more than 250 million people live with chronic hepatitis B infection worldwide. It also said that Infants are especially vulnerable and 90 per cent of them who are infected in their first year of life become chronic carriers. Each year, the disease claims nearly 900,000 lives.
Greater access to vaccine ‘birth dose’
Stating Infants can be protected from hepatitis B through effective vaccination, the WHO said that all infants should be given a first dose of the hepatitis B vaccine as soon as possible after birth – preferably within 24 hours – followed by at least two additional doses.
The WHO said that three dose coverage during childhood reached 85 per cent worldwide in 2019, up from 30 per cent in 2000. However, the WHO said that access to the first critical dose within 24 hours of birth remained uneven.
WHO Director of Global HIV, Hepatitis and STI Programmes Meg Doherty said that expanding access to a timely birth dose of the hepatitis B vaccine helps in preventing mother-to-children transmission in a greater level.
The WHO said that COVID 19 pandemic had a serious impact on the hepatitis B vaccination programme. A study has found that 5.3 million additional chronic infections could be seen in children born between 2020 and 2030, and one million additional hepatitis B-related deaths among those children later on.
Hepatitis C, once deadly, now highly curable
WHO chief Dr. Tedros said that 325 million people live with hepatitis B or C and 1.3 million people lose their lives to these diseases every year.
While medicines remain too expensive for patients in many countries, the UN health chief pointed to cases of “incredible” progress, notably in Egypt, where 60 million people have been tested for Hepatitis C and linked to treatment, free of charge. There has also been progress in eliminating hepatitis B in Asia, where childhood immunization coverage is high, including the all-important birth dose.
The WHO chief also mentioned that the was to find “the missing millions” of people who have not yet been identified as infected and to test and treat them so they no longer pass on the virus.
“Like so many diseases, hepatitis is not just a health problem, it is an enormous social and economic burden”, Tedros said.