The World Health Organisation (WHO) says the proportion of children under five years of age “chronically infected with hepatitis B (HBV)” dropped to just under one per cent in 2019.
WHO in a statement on Monday, said this was down from around five per cent in the pre-vaccine era, between the 1980s and the early 2000s.
It noted that the reduction marked the achievement of one of the milestone targets to eliminate viral hepatitis in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
The statement comes a day ahead of this year’s World Hepatitis Day commemorated annually on July 28 to enhance global awareness of viral hepatitis.
The disease is characterised by 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.
To build on the achievement, the global health body is calling for “united and stepped-up action” through intensified efforts to prevent mother-to-child transmission.
It is advocating enhanced testing of pregnant women, provision of antiviral prophylaxis to those who need it, and maintenance and expansion of access to hepatitis B immunisation and birth dose vaccine.
“No infant should grow up only to die of hepatitis B because they were not vaccinated,” the statement quoted the WHO Director-General, Dr Tedros Ghebreyesus as saying.
“Today’s milestone means that we have dramatically reduced the number of cases of liver damage and liver cancer in future generations.
“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,” Ghebreyesus said.
Globally, more than 250 million people are living with chronic HBV infection, according to the organisation.
It says infants are especially vulnerable, with 90 per cent of children infected with HBV in their first year of life becoming chronic HBV carriers.
“HBV attacks the liver and claims the lives of nearly 900,000 people each year,’’ WHO added.