Universal Vaccination In Alaska Has Nearly Eliminated Hepatitis A

A 3D illustration of the hepatitis B virus. vitstudio/Shutterstock

There is no evidence that links autism to vaccinations, but still the myth persists. Even the US President spouts this unscientific nonsense via (where else?) his Twitter account. The result: disease outbreaks that we can, and should be able to, prevent.

So it’s refreshing to see some encouraging vaccine-related news. In this case, the success of vaccination programs in Alaska, which have seen a drastic decline in both hepatitis A and B cases across the state.

Stephanie Massay, an epidemiology specialist at the Alaska Division of Public Health, and colleagues presented their data at this year’s World Indigenous People’s Conference in Anchorage, Alaska. Their results show the virtual elimination of hepatitis A among the native people of Alaska.

Hepatitis A is caused by a virus (HAV) that infects the liver. It can result in symptoms like fever, weakness, nausea, pain, and loss of appetite, though it can also be symptomless. 

In Alaska, an epidemic of the virus broke out every 10 to 15 years from the 1950s to the 1990s. It was the native population who were the worst affected, being up to 13 times more likely to be affected than the non-native population. In response, the state began a policy of universal vaccination for children between two and 14 years of age. By 2001, vaccination became a requirement for school entry.

The results have been impressive. Rates of infection have declined from 60 cases on average per 100,000 people annually (1972-1995) to 0.35 cases per 100,000 (2008-16). Of the 23 people infected, 88 percent may have caught the virus while travelling.

Also at the conference were Brian McMahon, director of the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium (ANTHC) Hepatitis Program, Rosalyn Singleton, and colleagues, who showed their findings, first published in 2000, indicating the near eradication of hepatitis B in Alaska.

During the seventies and eighties, the native people of Alaska experienced the highest rates of hepatitis B in the States, according to the World Hepatitis Alliance. Like hepatitis A, hepatitis B is caused by a virus (HBV), affects the liver, and can be symptomless.

In the eighties, the government began a program of universal vaccination for newborns. This was followed by a catch-up program targeting school-aged children.

Again, it's been a huge success. Data on HBV rates reveal that incidences of acute hepatitis B have declined from 19 per 100,000 native alaskan people aged 20 and under in 1981/82 to none since 1992. Numbers of native Alaskan people under 20 affected by chronic hepatitis B have reduced dramatically since 1988, when 657 infections were reported. In the past 18 years, there have been just two cases, the last of which was identified in 2010.

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This all goes to show how effective and simple vaccination programs can be – and exactly why anti-vaxxer "alternative facts" can be so damaging.

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