If I told you that there are vaccines to protect against cancer, what would you say? You might say, “I never knew,” or “yes, I know about the Human Papilloma Virus vaccine,” but I bet very few of you would mention the hepatitis B vaccine.
Hepatitis B is a chronic virus that affects the liver and accounts for 300,000 thousand liver cancer deaths per year. What many people don’t realise is that liver cancer caused by hepatitis B is 100 percent preventable. A preventative vaccine has existed since the early 1980s, but due to lack of political will to properly take on this disease in the past, hepatitis B continues to ravage communities. Today, 257 million people worldwide are living with it.
Since 2000, an increased effort has been made to scale-up vaccinations amongst infants and, today, 84% of children have been vaccinated, resulting in the rates of hepatitis B falling from 4.7% in the pre-vaccine era to 1.3% now. Coverage of infants is a good start, but to ensure real impact, we need to guarantee newborns are vaccinated in order 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.
This month, the UK announced that they will begin vaccinating babies at eight, 12 and 16 weeks from 1st August. Although this is a positive step forward, it still doesn’t provide full protection, of which vaccinating at birth would. Globally, two out of three newborns are still being denied access to the vaccine worldwide. 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 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.
Fortunately, following the advocacy work of our organisation, members and partners, the world seems to be turning their attention back to this epidemic.
In May 2016, 194 governments committed to increasing coverage of the hepatitis B birth dose vaccine to 90% by 2030, in an effort to eliminate this global disease by 2030.
So today, on World Hepatitis Day (WHD), we are calling on you all to join with us and raise awareness that there is a vaccine to prevent liver cancer and that each government must take action to ensure that the hepatitis B vaccine is part of national immunization and cancer control programmes. Only then will we be able to reach our goal of elimination.
This year, the global theme of WHD is ELIMINATE HEPATITIS and it is brought to life by the #ShowYourFace campaign. #ShowYourFace is a digital campaign calling on people to take a selfie and show their face in solidarity of eliminating viral hepatitis. You can also take part by signing up to our Thunderclap campaign before 12pm CET today to help spread the word on social media.