Hepatitis B kills around 3,50,000 people in the South-East Asian region every year, which is more than the annual death of AIDS and malaria combined, according to an expert of the World Health Organisation (WHO).
“Approximately 100 million (10 crore) people across the region suffer from the disease’s chronic form, which can cause debilitating fatigue, jaundice and abdominal pain,” Regional Director of WHO for South-East Asia Region Dr Poonam Khetrapal Singh writes in an article.
In the article, released to the media on the eve of the World Hepatitis Day, Dr Sing said that only a shot of the hepatitis B vaccine at birth can help save hundreds of thousands of lives each year, but newborns across the South-East Asia Region are missed out opportunity.
The hepatitis B vaccine is impressively effective when provided within 24 hours of birth. When followed up with at least two more doses of the vaccine during the first year of life, the birth dose protects newborns from mother-to-child transmission of the liver-wasting disease, and also guards against infection during a period when the virus is most damaging to future health.
“There are several ways we can turn this around and ensure every newborn receives the birth dose and is given the best chance possible to avoid hepatitis B,” she mentioned in the article.
First, every country in the region should make the birth dose an essential component of its early post-natal care regime. By aligning national practice with international guidelines, health service providers will know what is expected, meaning there can be no excuse for a lapse in coverage.
Second, where the birth dose is part of the immunization schedule, health care providers must be adequately trained and educated on the importance of the vaccine’s early delivery.
Well-structured training backed by frequent follow-up support will increase confidence among health workers administering the dose, and will also enhance the likelihood of it becoming a routine part of post-natal care.
Third, technologies vital to the dose’s provision must be made available at all levels of the health system, including at the community level. Though all efforts to encourage institutional delivery must be made, in hard-to-reach areas novel storage systems can allow health workers to provide the dose outside of a health care setting. As in all aspects of public health, advancing equity and access must be a priority.
Finally, health systems and those working in them must engage with communities to advance knowledge of the birth dose and emphasize its benefits. Fear of adverse effects remains a source of resistance to the vaccine among parents, while traditional practices – such as the custom of sequestering a newborn – provide their own challenges.
Health workers must deal with these barriers sensitively and in a way that empowers parents. Just as health workers must be trained to provide the vaccine, so too must parents be given the information necessary to drive demand, reports BSS.