The global prevalence of potentially-deadly hepatitis B in children under age five, dropped to under one per cent in 2019 – down from five per cent in the pre-vaccine decades between the 1980s and early 2000s, the World Health Organization (WHO) reported on Monday.
The advance marks the achievement of a critical target in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs): to reduce the transmission of hepatitis B in children under age five to under one per cent by this year.
The news coincides with World Hepatitis Day, commemorated annually on 28 July to raise awareness of the disease, a viral infection of the liver that causes a range of health problems, including liver cancer.
The theme for 2020 – “Hepatitis-free future” – has a strong focus on preventing the disease which attacks the liver, one of the five main strains, among mothers and newborns.
“No infant should grow up only to die of hepatitis B because they were not vaccinated”, said WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. “Today’s milestone means that we have dramatically reduced the number of cases of liver damage and liver cancer in future generations.”
Preventing mother-to-child transmission of hepatitis B is the most important strategy for controlling the disease and saving lives, Dr. Tedros said.
WHO is calling for united and intensified efforts to test pregnant women, provide antiviral prophylaxis to women who need it, and expand access to hepatitis B immunization and its all-important birth dose vaccine.
Globally, more than 250 million people live with chronic hepatitis B infection, according to WHO. Infants are especially vulnerable – and 90 per cent of children infected with hepatitis B in their first year of life become chronic carriers. Each year, the disease claims nearly 900,000 lives.
Infants can be protected from hepatitis B through a safe and effective vaccine that provides over 95 per cent protection.
WHO recommends that all infants receive 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.
Three-dose coverage during childhood, reached 85 per cent worldwide in 2019, up from 30 per cent in 2000.
However, access to the first critical dose within 24 hours of birth remains uneven. Global coverage is 43 per cent. Coverage drops to 34 per cent in the eastern Mediterranean region and only 6 per cent in Africa.
“Expanding access to a timely birth dose of the hepatitis B vaccine is the cornerstone of efforts to prevent mother-to-children transmission,” said Meg Doherty, WHO Director of Global HIV, Hepatitis and STI Programmes.
In sub-Saharan Africa, where the birth dose of hepatitis B vaccine has not yet been introduced, “it is a priority to assure that protection as early as possible”.