July 28, 2011 / 8:30 AM / 8 years ago

WHO renews push to cut hepatitis infections in babies in Asia

HONG KONG (Reuters) - Nine Asia Pacific countries will not meet a 2012 target to reduce hepatitis B infections among children, according to the World Health Organization which plans to intensify its fight against the disease.

Nine out of 10 remain chronically infected for the rest of their lives because their immune systems are undeveloped, which can lead to liver cirrhosis and then liver cancer later on.

But a WHO expert said the goal of reducing infection rates among children to below 2 percent by 2012 will not be met in Cambodia, Kiribati, Laos, Papua New Guinea, the Philippines, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Vanuatu and Vietnam.

“These nine countries don’t look like they are going to make the 2 percent goal,” said Karen Hennessey, technical officer for WHO’s expanded program on hepatitis B immunization.

Hennessey, who spoke by telephone from Manila, said infection rates among children in these countries were around 8 percent before vaccination programs were introduced at different times starting from the 1980s.

While infection rates have fallen to about 3 to 4 percent, these programs have stalled because of the lack of technical expertise and training, or money, she said.

China is one of the exceptions with infection rates among its children down dramatically in the last five years to below 2 percent due to a successful vaccination program, Hennessey said. However, it still has a huge 10 percent pool of infected adults.

Hepatitis B, which is 50 to 100 times more infectious than HIV, is mostly passed from mother to child when the mother’s infected blood comes into contact with open wounds on her newborn during delivery. But a vaccine given within the first 24 hours of birth can prevent infection.

To renew efforts to fight the virus, WHO wants to push a three-pronged approach, which includes getting more pregnant women to deliver in healthcare facilities so that their babies can be immunized soon after delivery.

“If it’s very difficult to get women into hospitals, either because (their homes are) remote or very poor, the other possibility is to make sure there is a skilled attendant at every birth ... who are trained to give vaccine within 24 hours,” Hennessy said.

The WHO will also help with providing training, she said.

“It is important to get that first dose within 24 hours. But it’s not clear. Is it the first hour, first three hours? Who is responsible? Who writes it down? That is enough for people to not want to do it. There has to be training,” she said.

About 2 billion people worldwide have been infected by this virus and 350 million of them live with chronic infection. About 600,000 people die each year from the virus, which is also passed through sexual contact and unclean needles. Apart from hepatitis B, other common forms of hepatitis are A, C and E.

Reporting by Tan Ee Lyn; Editing by Sugita Katyal

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