The World Health Organisation (WHO) says the global prevalence of potentially-deadly hepatitis B in children under five years dropped to under one per cent in 2019 – down from five per cent.
The WHO Director-General, Dr Tedros Ghebreyesus, who stated this in a message to commemorate World Hepatitis Day on Tuesday, said that the percentage of spread dropped from five to one in the pre-vaccine decades between the 1980s and early 2000s.
World Hepatitis Day, is observed on July 28 every year with the aims of raising global awareness of hepatitis — a group of infectious diseases known as Hepatitis A, B, C, D, and E — and encouraging prevention, diagnosis and treatment.
According to the WHO DG, 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 theme for 2020 World Hepatitis Day– “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.
The director general said “no infant should grow up only 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.”
According to him, preventing mother-to-child transmission of hepatitis B is the most important strategy for controlling the disease and saving lives.
Ghebreyesus added that “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 immunisation 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,’’ he said.
The director general noted that infants could be protected from hepatitis B through a safe and effective vaccine that provides over 95 per cent protection.
He said WHO recommended 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 six per cent in Africa,’’ he also said.
In addition, Ghebreyesus said 325 million people live with hepatitis B or C. Each year, 1.3 million people lose their lives to these diseases.
“The first-ever global hepatitis strategy, adopted by countries at the 2016 World Health Assembly, called for an end to viral hepatitis by 2030, reducing new infections by 90 per cent and mortality by 65 per cent.
“Even talking about hepatitis elimination would have once seemed a fantasy but new drugs have transformed hepatitis C from a life-long deadly disease into one in most cases can be cured in 12 weeks.”
While medicines remain too expensive for patients in many countries, he 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 immunisation coverage is high, including the all-important birth dose.
“Like so many diseases, hepatitis is not just a health problem, it is an enormous social and economic burden,” he said.