Due to a highly effective global vaccination program, the proportion of children under the age of five who are chronically infected with hepatitis B has plummeted significantly, to just under 1%.
This is down from about 5% in the pre-vaccine era (the period between the 1980s and early 2000s), according to new estimates from the World Health Organization.
Eliminating viral hepatitis has been part of a UN Sustainable Development Goal to “ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages” since 2015.
Reaching a prevalence rate of HBV infections below 1% in very young children is a major milestone that brings the world closer to the UN goal of ending hepatitis by 2030.
“No baby should grow up alone to die of hepatitis B because they were not vaccinated: today’s milestone means that we have dramatically reduced the number of cases of liver damage and liver cancer in future generations,” said public health researcher Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.
“Preventing the transmission of hepatitis B from mother to child is the most important strategy to control the disease and save lives. Even amid the COVID-19 pandemic, we must ensure that mothers and newborns have access to life-saving services, including Hepatitis B vaccines. “
The World Health Organization (WHO) is now calling for united and accelerated action to build on this achievement through intensified efforts to prevent mother-to-child transmission of HBV by testing pregnant women and providing antiviral prophylaxis to those in need and maintain and expand access to hepatitis B immunization and birth-dose vaccine.
Prevention of hepatitis B
Babies can be protected from HBV with a safe and effective vaccine that provides more than 95% protection against infection.
WHO recommends that all babies 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.
The spread of the hepatitis B vaccine around the world over the past two decades, which has been due in large part to the support provided by Gavi, The Vaccine Alliance, has been a great public health success story and contributed to the decrease in HBV infections among children.
In 2019, coverage of three doses of the hepatitis B vaccine during childhood reached 85% worldwide, up from 30% in 2000.
However, access to the first critical dose within 24 hours after birth remains uneven. Global coverage of this dose at birth is 43%, but it drops to 34% in the WHO Eastern Mediterranean Region and only 6% in the WHO African Region.
“Expanding access to a timely delivery dose of hepatitis B vaccine is the cornerstone of efforts to prevent mother-to-child transmission of HBV. For countries, especially in regions like sub-Saharan Africa, where the birth dose of the hepatitis B vaccine has not yet been introduced, it is a priority to ensure that protection as soon as possible, ”said Dr. Meg Doherty, Director of Global HIV. Hepatitis and STI Programs.
Eliminating mother-to-child transmission of HBV is also an important stepping stone to achieving the goals of the WHO global hepatitis strategy, which aims to reduce new hepatitis infections by 90% and deaths by 65%, compared to 2015 levels.
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