Protecting African Newborns from Hepatitis B

A new initiative aims to eliminate mother-to-child transmission of hepatitis B in Africa. 

Beginning in March, a diverse group of stakeholders started meeting online to support African countries in the introduction of a critical vaccine – the “HepB birth dose,” a vaccine recommended for every newborn, but which only six percent of African newborns receive.

About 50% of hepatitis B infections are due to mother-to-child transmission at birth, with 25% of infected newborns dying prematurely because of hepatitis B-related diseases. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), an estimated 90 percent of prenatal infections result in chronic infection which can lead to complications like liver disease, liver failure, and liver cancer. Globally, an estimated 257 million people currently live with chronic hepatitis B infection, causing over 550,000 deaths every year. At this rate, if treatments and vaccines are not used to prevent further infections, hepatitis B will soon be spreading at epidemic rates.

“The challenges women face include: the vaccine being out of stock, they must walk to the hospital, paying for the vaccine themselves, or traditional birth attendants do not have the vaccine,” said Danjuma Adda, incoming president of the World Hepatitis Alliance. “So for every mother that we represent, it is worrying [for them] to pass this virus on to the baby. And the innocent baby is a victim in the end.”

Screening expectant mothers, providing treatment for mothers that are found to be positive, and providing a hepatitis B vaccine to the infant within 24 hours of birth protects the infant and stops further transmission. To increase these interventions in Africa region, The Task Force’s Coalition for Global Hepatitis Elimination (CGHE) has launched a community of practice, which will bring together hepatitis B technical advisors and researchers in African countries as well as National Advisory Committees on Immunization, country Expanded Immunization Program managers, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Global Immunization Division, the WHO, and Gavi, the vaccine alliance.

“We hope this meeting will not just be a meeting where we just talk but that we will work to join forces to see that the African child and baby is not left behind,” said Adda.

Participants will share updates of hepatitis B elimination progress, map current and upcoming hepatitis B birth dose projects led by Ministries of Health and partners, identify countries’ health system needs to introduce a birth dose of the vaccine, develop tools for gathering evidence on successes and challenges of the birth dose, and identify areas for collaboration across countries. Watch the recordings of the meetings that have already occurred.

The ultimate goal is to “bring stakeholders together to better understand what resources we have available,” said John Ward, MD, director of CGHE. “What are the challenges and then match the resources to the challenges to improve hepatitis B birth dose introduction and scale-up…so that we better protect infants from this lifelong chronic infection and achieve the goal of HBV elimination.”

The webinars are open to the public. Check out the full series here.

Header photo: Mothers wait for check ups at a health clinic in Burundi. Photo credit: Tharcisse Nahimana

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