Sep 20 2004
Liver cancer, cirrhosis of the liver and other diseases related to hepatitis B infection will continue to kill people in the prime of life and burden health systems with chronically sick people unless childhood immunization against hepatitis B is stepped up, the World Health Organization (WHO) has warned.
Hepatitis B control is one of the two new pillars-the other is measles elimination-endorsed by WHO's governing body, the Regional Committee for the Western Pacific, to strengthen its Expanded Programme on Immunization.
The Region, which is home to only 28% of the global population, accounts for just under half (45%) of the world's hepatitis B chronic carriers and more than half of the global mortality due to hepatitis B. About 800 people die from hepatitis B-related infection every day, and most of these deaths result from infection acquired in childhood. Universal childhood vaccination with three doses of hepatitis B vaccine, including a birth dose, is the most effective way of controlling hepatitis B.
"All countries in the Region have introduced hepatitis B vaccine into their national programmes. However, coverage levels have yet to reach the recommended level of at least 80% in most countries," Dr Shigeru Omi, WHO Regional Director for the Western Pacific, told the Regional Committee meeting in Shanghai, China.
Lack of resources, limited immunization coverage, failure to maintain vaccine supplies and the inability to deliver a dose within 24 hours of birth are derailing hepatitis B control in many countries in the Region. Immunization coverage is also stagnating in some countries.
"More advocacy and social mobilization efforts will be required to convince parents and governments to invest in hepatitis B immunization," said Dr Omi, pointing out that the impact of a hepatitis B vaccination programme on morbidity and mortality takes a few decades to show.
On the other hand, many countries in the Region are ready for or have already reached measles elimination.
A target date for full measles elimination in the Region will soon be set. "Measles elimination is technically feasible, but achieving it will require a high level of political commitment and financing," Dr Omi said.
He called for continued concerted efforts, pointing out that "even in countries that have already achieved good measles control, there is still potential for large outbreaks if high immunization coverage is not sustained."