by Sovan Nguon
PHNOM PENH, June 8 (Xinhua) -- Cambodia has achieved a landmark public health victory by reducing the prevalence of hepatitis B surface antigen among children to less than 1 percent, said a joint statement on Friday.
Jointly released by the Ministry of Health, the World Health Organization (WHO), and the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), the statement said Cambodia joined 20 of 37 other countries and areas in the WHO Western Pacific Region that have been verified by an independent panel as having met this goal by 2017.
Hepatitis B is a virus that spreads through blood and other bodily fluids and attacks the liver, the statement said, adding that it is often transmitted during pregnancy or childbirth.
Most babies who are exposed to the virus show no symptoms, but the infection increases their risk of later developing serious problems including cirrhosis and liver cancer by 15 percent to 25 percent, it said.
Hepatitis B was highly endemic in Cambodia, and most new infections were among babies or young children, it added.
"Cambodia has made tremendous strides in combating the virus since the hepatitis B vaccine was added to the national immunization program in 2005," the statement said. "Since 2005, the hepatitis B immunization schedule has included a birth dose given within 24 hours, followed by additional doses given at six weeks, 10 weeks and 14 weeks of age."
Cambodian Minister of Health Mam Bunheng said that before 2005, between 5 and 10 percent of Cambodia's population had hepatitis B, and the prevalence of hepatitis B among children was 3.5 percent in 2006.
He added that in 2017, a survey was conducted and found that the prevalence of hepatitis B among 5-6-year-old children in Cambodia had declined to 0.56 percent.
"By now, Cambodia has achieved three national and regional immunization goals within three years set by Western Pacific Regional Committee Meeting. These include the eliminations of measles and maternal and neonatal tetanus in 2015, and the hepatitis B control goal in 2018," he said at a press conference in Phnom Penh.
Liu Yunguo, WHO Country Representative in Cambodia, congratulated Cambodia for its one and a half decades-long efforts towards achieving hepatitis B control goal.
"Hepatitis B control goal is a significant achievement for Cambodia and it proves that vaccination is the most effective preventive measure, and maintaining high vaccination coverage can drastically reduce burden of disease and delivers results," he said at the press conference.
"Our next steps would be to strengthen routine immunization systems, keeping the vaccine available at all levels, sustaining and increasing hepatitis B birth dose coverage, and wiping out all forms of viral hepatitis: A, B, C, D and E by 2030," he said.
Natascha Paddison, UNICEF deputy representative in Cambodia, said hepatitis is preventable with timely vaccination, starting with the birth dose being given within 24 hours of birth.
"Cambodia has made great progress in combating hepatitis B infection control, we will continue working closely with Ministry of Health and WHO to ensure a consistent supply of all national immunization program vaccines and every child is given the opportunity to live a life free of vaccine preventable diseases," she said.
Tung Rathavy, director of Cambodia's National Immunization Program, said that some 1.72 million children, or 98 percent of all under-5-year-old children, had received hepatitis B vaccination in 2017.
She added that the Southeast Asian nation spent about 2 million U.S. dollars a year for hepatitis B vaccines.
According to the joint statement, hepatitis B is a major global health problem, with nearly 260 million people around the world living with the disease, and nearly 800,000 die from hepatitis B-related liver disease every year.