“Stop hepatitis B and liver cancer. Vaccinate at birth”: The Regional Immunization Week message for the Western Pacific Region

News release

WHO/A. Esquillon

To mark World Immunization Week (21 to 27 April), the World Health Organization (WHO) in the Western Pacific Region stresses the need for all newborn babies to be vaccinated against hepatitis B within 24 hours of birth, followed by at least two more doses. This vaccination regimen will allow the Region to achieve its goal of reducing the infection rate in children to less than 1% by 2017.

Chronic (long-) hepatitis B infection can lead to serious and potentially fatal complications like liver cirrhosis and liver cancer. An estimated 600 000 people die worldwide each year from causes related to hepatitis B. The Western Pacific Region has the highest rates of hepatitis B in the world; the disease is responsible for some 900 deaths each day.

In the Region, most chronic hepatitis B infections start during birth or early childhood. Vaccination at birth, followed by at least two more doses over three months, can prevent this.

“Strong political will coupled with sustainable resources for immunization produces dramatic results,” noted Dr Shin Young-soo, WHO Regional Director for the Western Pacific. “Look at China. Before the vaccine was introduced there in 1992, almost 10% of children under five years old were infected. But now that figure is less than 1%, which is the goal for the entire Region.”

From 1990 to 2012 in the Western Pacific Region, hepatitis B vaccination at birth increased from nearly nonexistent to three out of four newborn infants. Meanwhile, three-dose vaccination increased from 17% to 91%. The target coverage in the Region for timely birth dose vaccination is 95%.

“That’s an achievable target, but to reach it we need greater awareness among the public and the health-care sector, along with continued investment,” said Dr Mark Jacobs, Director of the Division of Combating Communicable Diseases in the WHO Western Pacific Region. “For Immunization Week, we’re sending the hepatitis B message through a 30-second video via television and social media. Our message is that hepatitis B which can lead to early death is preventable by vaccinating all newborn babies. Vaccination coverage is already high, but there are still too many babies not being protected from this serious disease.”

In some countries the challenges to hepatitis B vaccination at birth include health professionals having limited access to newborns; the vaccination not being included as part of essential newborn care; and inadequate supply of the vaccine itself.

In 2012, WHO estimated that 30 of the 37 countries and areas in the Western Pacific had reduced the proportion of five-year-old children infected with hepatitis B to less than 2%. Now, the Region is aiming to reduce that rate to less than 1%. For that to happen, timely vaccination at birth and three-dose coverage should reach 95%. If that’s achieved, an additional 240 000 chronic infections and 60 000 deaths related to hepatitis B will be prevented among infants born each year in the Region.

“Many countries have already seen significant success through childhood immunization programmes against a range of vaccine-preventable diseases,” concluded Dr Shin. “Tackling hepatitis B has been a particular challenge in our part of the world. Vaccination truly is the safest and most effective way to prevent the infection for life. Let’s protect future generations from this debilitating and deadly disease.”

For more information, please contact:

Dr Sergey Diorditsa
Team Leader, Expanded Programme on Immunization
Telephone: +632 528 9745
Email: diorditsas@wpro.who.int

Mr Ruel E. Serrano
Assistant, Public Information Office
Telephone: +632 528 9993
Email: serranor@wpro.who.int