MANILA, 27 July 2011-The World Health Organization (WHO) today pledged to focus on nine countries in the Western Pacific Region facing significant challenges in meeting a 2012 target to reduce hepatitis B infection rates among children.

While most countries in the Region have likely reduced infection rates in children to less than 2%, the nine are not yet there, mainly because of low vaccination coverage. In many of these countries, a major cause of low vaccination rates is the high number of births that occur at home without skilled birth attendants, making it difficult to deliver vaccines and other care services, WHO said. The nine countries are Cambodia, Kiribati, the Lao People's Democratic Republic, Papua New Guinea, the Philippines, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Vanuatu and Viet Nam.

WHO's Western Pacific Region has almost half the global cases of hepatitis B, while having only a third of the world's population. Countries in the Region have committed to reducing hepatitis B infection rates in children to less than 2% by 2012 and to less than 1% as a future goal. Dr Shin Young-soo, WHO Regional Director for the Western Pacific, said reaching the target is crucial and doable. "Focused, concerted action is essential, especially in the countries in the Region that continue to suffer from high rates of mother-to-child transmission of hepatitis B virus," he said.

Hepatitis B infection can be chronic and lead to cirrhosis and liver cancer. About 25% of people with chronic hepatitis B infection die prematurely due to complications.

At WHO's World Health Assembly in 2010, countries unanimously adopted a resolution calling for concerted action to address the viral hepatitis issue. July 28 was designated World Hepatitis Day, serving as an opportunity to promote specific actions towards preventing and controlling these viruses and the disease they cause.

WHO's Western Pacific Region marks World Hepatitis Day with the slogan: "Knock down Hepatitis B by 2012". Hepatitis B is a preventable disease. The prevention starts at birth, with an effective and safe vaccine that breaks the chain of transmission. The virus is highly contagious and can easily pass to newborn infants after exposure to their mother's blood during childbirth. The vaccine can prevent infection even after exposure to the virus, but the baby needs to be vaccinated within 24 hours of birth, followed by two other timely vaccine doses later.

Many countries across the globe have realized the benefits of vaccination. "More than 90% of countries are now including vaccine against hepatitis B infection in routine childhood immunization programmes, giving these babies life-long protection", said Dr Margaret Chan, WHO Director-General.

WHO says about one in 13 women of child-bearing age in the Western Pacific Region are infected with hepatitis B. Screening for infection during pregnancy is not routine in most countries, so every newborn must be treated as though he or she has been exposed to the virus.