Controlling hepatitis B in the Western Pacific

News release

Countries in the Western Pacific Region have made great strides in the fight against hepatitis B, especially among children. With the support of the World Health Organization (WHO), Member States have adopted the bold goal of reducing hepatitis B infections in children to less than 1% by 2017.

“Member States have made dramatic gains in controlling hepatitis B in children,” said Dr Shin Young-soo, WHO Regional Director for the Western Pacific. “If we continue to work together, we can protect more lives from this debilitating disease.”

Hepatitis B is known as the “silent epidemic” because its symptoms appear long after infection, sometimes even decades later. It is one of a group of infectious diseases causing inflammation of the liver, which can lead to liver cirrhosis or primary liver cancer. Approximately 600 000 people die worldwide each year from causes related to hepatitis B. The Western Pacific Region has the highest rates of chronic hepatitis B prevalence in the world, resulting in nearly 900 deaths per day.

Limited awareness of the threat of hepatitis B is a continual problem—many people do not associate the disease with liver cirrhosis and cancer due to the late onset of the symptoms. Hepatitis B can lead to liver failure, which usually requires costly treatments, such as liver transplants, that strain both the patient and the health system. To highlight the dangers of hepatitis B, WHO marked World Hepatitis Day 2013 on 28 July with the campaign theme of: “This is hepatitis. Know it. Confront it.”

In 2005, Member States and WHO had committed to reducing the prevalence rate of hepatitis B in five-year-old children to less than 2%. Having achieved that milestone in 2012, Member States will now strive to reduce infection rates to less than 1% among children. Once achieved, this goal will translate to an additional 60 000 hepatitis B-related deaths averted per year in the Western Pacific Region.

WHO believes that vaccination at birth and the three-dose vaccine for infants is crucial to curbing the infection rate in children. In 2012, 20 million newborn infants (86% of those born in the Region that year) were vaccinated within 24 hours of birth, while 22 million infants (96% of those born in the Region that year) completed the three-dose vaccination course.

WHO has identified the following potential obstacles to vaccination at birth in certain countries:

  • health professionals might have limited access to newborn infants;
  • hepatitis B vaccination might not be part of essential newborn care; and
  • a lack of a continuous supply of the hepatitis B vaccine.

Addressing these obstacles and expanding three-dose vaccine coverage will strengthen other routine immunization programmes in Member States and help countries achieve the new 1% target. WHO sees the campaign against hepatitis B as part of its wider Global Vaccine Action Plan, which aims to bring about full immunization coverage of all individuals and communities in WHO Member States.

For further information or to request for an interview, please contact:

Mr Ruel E. Serrano
Assistant, Public Information Office
Telephone.: +632 528 8001
E-mail: serranor@wpro.who.int

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