July 31, 2012 | The Editors

HepB vaccine gives babies a shot at health

To mark World Hepatitis Day, Molly Derrick, a member of our staff in Vietnam, sent this encouraging report on progress in getting newborns the vaccine that can protect them from hepatitis B.

In Asia, infants face a greater risk of contracting the life-threatening hepatitis B virus than in any other region of the world. Most of the babies who are infected will become chronic carriers of the virus—they can give it to others but may not know they have the disease. One in four will die due to the long-lasting infection.

Woman holds baby while man injects vaccine into baby's thigh.
A health worker in Vietnam gives a baby a dose of hepatitis B vaccine. Photo: PATH/Vu Minh Huong.

But there’s good news in the fight against hepatitis B. If given within 24 hours of birth, one shot of the hepatitis B vaccine—a birth dose—can prevent most hepatitis B infections that are passed from mother to child.

Last Saturday, tens of thousands of people around the world commemorated World Hepatitis Day. In Vietnam’s Hai Duong Province, it was truly a celebration. With PATH’s help, more newborns in Hai Duong are receiving lifesaving hepatitis B vaccine within 24 hours of birth than at any time in more than five years.

To protect every baby

In early 2007, a few newborns who had received hepatitis B vaccine died from causes unrelated to the vaccine. Although the vaccine didn’t cause the deaths, some health workers stopped giving it. For the past three years, PATH has been working with Vietnam’s National Expanded Program on Immunization (NEPI) to reenergize the hepatitis B birth-dose vaccination program. Working with national and international partners, we helped NEPI create a national action plan and guidelines to deliver hepatitis B birth-dose vaccine. We trained nearly a thousand health staff, reinforcing their immunization skills and adding to their knowledge of the vaccine. These trainings gave local health workers the information and tools they need to ensure every newborn receives vaccine against hepatitis B.

In addition to delivering vaccine, health workers and people in the communities they serve need to understand the dangers of hepatitis B infection and the benefits the vaccine provides. So we taught health workers how to talk to pregnant women about the disease and vaccine, and we used local TV and radio to deliver the message to the wider community.

Astounding results

The results have been astounding. In 2008, only 2 percent of infants in Hai Duong received a birth dose of vaccine. After the first four months of our project, nine out of ten babies received a birth dose. That’s more than 8,100 babies protected from hepatitis B. Today, more than 85 percent of infants are receiving the vaccine through the efforts of local and national health staff.

The success of the project didn’t stop in Hai Duong. Late last year, PATH started projects in two more provinces—Thanh Hoa and Hoa Binh—based on our model to improve hepatitis B-birth dose vaccination. Initial results show birth-dose coverage is on the rise in both provinces.

Vietnam had a lot to celebrate on World Hepatitis Day, but there is more to be done. With the support of generous donors and commitment from local health workers, we believe Vietnam can reach the recommended birth dose coverage level of 85 percent not only in specific provinces, but nationwide. We look forward to sharing the continued success of Vietnam’s hepatitis B birth-dose program on next year’s World Hepatitis Day.

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