Geneva: The proportion of children under five years of age
chronically infected with hepatitis B (HBV) dropped to just under 1% in 2019
down from around 5% in the pre-vaccine era (the period between the 1980s and
the early 2000s), according to new estimates from the World Health Organization
This marks the achievement of one of the milestone targets to
eliminate viral hepatitis in the Sustainable Development Goals ─ to reach under
1% 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, Director General.
"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.”
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.
Globally, more than 250 million people are living with
chronic HBV infection. Infants are especially vulnerable: about 90% of children
infected with HBV in their first year of life become chronic HBV carriers.
Preventing hepatitis B
Infants can be protected from HBV through a safe and effective
vaccine that provides over 95% protection against infection. 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 2
An additional way to protect children is to provide pregnant
women with antiviral treatment to reduce mother-to-child transmission of HBV.
WHO already recommends routine testing of all pregnant women for HBV, as well
as HIV and syphilis as early as possible in their pregnancy. In view of new
evidence on the safety and efficacy of antiviral prophylaxis in pregnant women
and their children, WHO is issuing today 2 new recommendations:
women who test positive for hepatitis B infection and have a high level of HBV
in the blood (known as HBV viral load) should receive preventive antiviral
therapy with tenofovir from the 28th week of pregnancy until birth. The
antiviral drug, tenofovir is available at low cost in many countries of the
world for less than US$3 per month.
• In settings
where HBV viral load testing is not available, WHO recommends the use of an
alternative low cost test (HBeAg) to determine whether a woman is eligible for
preventive antiviral therapy.
World Hepatitis Day is commemorated each year on 28 July to
enhance awareness of viral hepatitis, an inflammation of the liver that causes
a range of health problems, including liver cancer. This year’s theme is
“Hepatitis-free future,” with a strong focus on preventing hepatitis B among
mothers and newborns. There are five main strains of the hepatitis virus: A, B,
C, D and E. Together, hepatitis B and C
are the most common cause of deaths, with 1.3 million lives lost each year.
Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, viral hepatitis continues to claim thousands of
lives every day.