Why do we continue to put our children at unnecessary risk of liver cancer?

6 Jun 2017 Bridie Taylor

On International Children’s Day (1June), the World Hepatitis Alliance calls for widespread coverage of the hepatitis B birth dose vaccine to protect our children’s futures.

By Raquel Peck, CEO of the World Hepatitis Alliance

Children are our future. It’s an utter cliché, but it’s true. Children are our future adults, leaders, carers. And so, we have a duty to provide children with the best start in life possible, and that means ensuring their health and wellbeing from day one. A no-brainer, right?

Worldwide, almost two out three babies are being denied access to the hepatitis B birth dose vaccine, a simple measure which can avert a virus that can cause cirrhosis and liver cancer and accounts for over 880,000 deaths a year, globally.

Despite the alarming figures, inexplicably not all children are receiving this life-saving intervention. Across the globe 84% of infants receive three doses of the hepatitis B vaccine. It’s a good start but to ensure full protection, the vaccine must be given shortly after birth to prevent both infection that may occur early in life and to protect against potential mother-to-child transmission if the mother is living with hepatitis B.

In the South-East Asia region only 34% receive the birth dose vaccine; in the Eastern Mediterranean region just 23% of babies are vaccinated and in the African region as few as just 10% receive the birth dose. There are many reasons for this: vaccines are unavailable, health services are poorly provided or inaccessible, populations live in remote locations, or because families are uninformed about the importance of vaccination.

As a mother myself, I know it might be hard to imagine putting a newborn baby through the pain of a shot but this small prick is a crucial first step to protecting a child against a deadly disease for life. What’s more, where vaccination has been implemented, it has already proven a success. The proportion of children under 5 years of age who are chronically infected with hepatitis B has fallen from 4.7% in the pre-vaccine era to 1.3% now. The fact that the majority of those living with hepatitis B are adults born before the hepatitis B was available and that the prevalence of hepatitis B among children under 5 is still at 3% in the African region shows just how crucial vaccination is in protecting children’s futures.

The 257 million people currently living with chronic hepatitis B infection were denied this protection, but we cannot deny our children protection. In May 2016, 194 governments committed to increasing coverage of the hepatitis B birth dose vaccine to 90% by 2030.

Today on International Children’s Day, we call on all governments to uphold their commitment by implementing vaccination programme for infants from day one. Let’s join together and raise our voices to ensure that every baby across the world gets the best possible start in life. Now, that’s a no-brainer.