World Hepatitis Day
World Hepatitis Day Image Credit: Shutterstock

The proportion of children under five years of age chronically infected with hepatitis B (HBV) dropped to just under 1 percent in 2019 down from around 5 percent in the pre-vaccine era (the period between the 1980s and the early 2000s), according to new estimates from the World Health Organisation (WHO).

This marks the achievement of one of the milestone targets to eliminate viral hepatitis in the Sustainable Development Goals: to reach under 1 percent prevalence of HBV infections in children under five years of age by 2020.

"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," said Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. "Preventing mother-to-child transmission of hepatitis B is the most important strategy for controlling the disease and saving lives. Even in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, we must ensure that mothers and newborns have access to life-saving services including hepatitis B vaccinations."

As countries scrambles to find a vaccine to protect us against the coronavirus and the debilitating impact it has had on the world so far, this progress in the fight against hepeatitis B is a timely reminder of the crucial function of vaccination.

On World Hepatitis Day 2020, WHO is calling for united and stepped-up action to build on this achievement through intensified efforts to prevent mother-to-child transmission of HBV through testing pregnant women and provision of antiviral prophylaxis to those who need it and maintaining and expanding access to hepatitis B immunization and birth dose vaccine.

According to WHO, globally, more than 250 million people are living with chronic HBV infection. "Infants are especially vulnerable: about 90 percent of children infected with HBV in their first year of life become chronic HBV carriers. HBV attacks the liver and claims the lives of nearly 900,000 people each year."

Infants can be protected from HBV through a safe and effective vaccine that provides over 95 percent protection against infection, WHO said, recommending 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.

The hepatitis B vaccine is on the Dubai Health Authority’s immunization schedule for children in the UAE. Read more about childhood vaccinations in the UAE