The achievement responds to the organization's target of eliminating viral hepatitis, established in the Sustainable Development Goals for 2020.
"No infant should grow up only to die of hepatitis B because they were not vaccinated ─ today's milestone means that we have dramatically reduced the number of cases of liver damage and liver cancer in future generations," said WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom.
Ahead of the World's Hepatitis Day on Tuesday, the organization reported that more than 250 million people are living with chronic HBV infection on the planet. Notably, 90 percent of them are children who get ill during their first year of life, becoming chronic HBV carriers.
The WHO says that the increment in HBV vaccination during the past 20 years is "a great public health success story" since last year, worldwide, it was possible to provide three doses of the hepatitis B vaccine, reaching 85 percent of the population targeted.
However, the sanitary crisis unleashed by the COVID-19 pandemic jeopardizes the milestone. On July 15, the WHO warned that the vaccination rate had fallen for the first time in 28 years, which means that 80 million children under the age of 1 at increased risk of contracting vaccine-preventable diseases, including HBV.
Ahead of #WorldHepatitisDay, we're celebrating that the proportion of children under-5, chronically infected with #hepatitis B dropped to under 1% in 2019 because of an effective vaccine. This also means there’ll be a dramatic reduction in liver cancer & cirrhosis in future Gens. pic.twitter.com/0CY5jbBfjT
The organization forecasts that, in the worst-case scenario, there would be a projected 5.3 million additional chronic HBV infections among children born between 2020 and 2030, taking into account the high levels of disruption in vaccination programs across the world as well as the slow recovery when resuming this programs in the aftermath of the pandemic.
On the other hand, WHO's Director of Global HIV, Hepatitis and STI Programmes Meg Doherty said that "expanding access to a timely birth dose of the hepatitis B vaccine is the cornerstone of efforts to prevent mother-to-children transmission of HBV."
For countries, especially in regions such as sub-Saharan Africa, where the birth dose of hepatitis B vaccine has not yet been introduced, it is a priority to assure that protection as early as possible," the official added.
HBV attacks the liver and causes both acute and chronic diseases. The virus is transmitted more often from mother to child during birth and delivery, as well as through contact with blood or other body fluids. The WHO organizations estimate that this virus kills about 900 000 every year.