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WHO Says COVID-19 Threatens Gains on Hepatitis

FILE - A Hepatitis-B patient Bharat Prajapati, 21, receives medical treatment at an isolation ward of the Civil hospital in Ahmadabad, India.

The World Health Organization warns that the COVID-19 pandemic is threatening gains made in eliminating Hepatitis B and C, which cause liver damage and liver cancer. In observance of World Hepatitis Day Tuesday, the WHO is calling for action to stop transmission of viral hepatitis from mother-to-child.

Around 325 million people globally live with hepatitis B or C and an estimated one-point-three million people die of this viral disease each year. The World Health Organization reports the proportion of children under age five chronically infected with hepatitis B has dropped from five percent to under one percent since the 1980s. This, thanks to the availability of a safe and effective vaccine.

WHO Director-General, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus considers this a big achievement. He says progress toward the elimination of the disease is being made in Asia where childhood hepatitis B immunization coverage is high.

“However, progress is being hampered by low coverage of hepatitis B vaccine in some regions, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa, where many children still miss out on the all-important vaccine dose at birth," Tedros said. "One of the most significant challenges we face in eliminating hepatitis B is mother-to-children transmission.”

FILE - Director-General of the World Health Organization (WHO) Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus speaks during a news conference in Geneva, Switzerland.
FILE - Director-General of the World Health Organization (WHO) Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus speaks during a news conference in Geneva, Switzerland.

Tedros says inoculating children at birth is the most important strategy for controlling the disease and saving lives. He says children who are immunized against the virus will protect future generations from becoming sick and dying from liver damage and liver cancer.

To mark World Hepatitis Day, the WHO is issuing new guidelines for the prevention of mother-to-child transmission of hepatitis B. Tedros sees the implementation of the new guidelines as an important stepping-stone on the road to hepatitis elimination. But, he warns, that road has been made harder by COVID-19.

“Services for prevention, testing and treatment have been disrupted, supply chains are being interrupted, limited financial and human resources are being diverted and the political focus has shifted to containing the pandemic and economic recovery," Tedros said. "All of which means there is a real risk we could lose the gains we have made.”

The WHO warns high levels of disruptions of both the birth dose and childhood hepatitis B immunization would likely result in five-point-three million additional chronic infections among children born in the next decade, leading to a million related deaths.

Health officials are urging governments to act now to ensure young children receive this life-saving vaccine to prevent new long-lasting hepatitis B infections.