There are approximately 50 million chronic carriers of hepatitis B virus (HBV) in Africa, with a 25% mortality risk. In sub-Saharan Africa, carrier rates range from 9-20%. Many studies have suggested that HBV transmission in Africa occurs predominantly in childhood, by the horizontal rather than the perinatal route. The exact mode of transmission is uncertain but probably involves percutaneous infection through saliva or traces of blood, as well through unsterile needles, tribal scarification, and other possible vehicles. Compared with adult HBsAg carriers in the Far East, those in Africa have a low rate of HBeAg positivity, which may account for the relatively low rates of perinatal infection. It is also possible that African infants are less susceptible to perinatal HBV infection compared with their Asian counterparts. Alternatively, it may be that African infants are indeed infected with HBV at birth but, for genetically determined reasons, have persistently negative tests for a number of years until the virus is reactivated. In view of the high HBV carrier rates in the general population, universal immunisation of all infants is recommended. Ways of incorporating the hepatitis B vaccine into the Expanded Programme on Immunisation in each country are being evaluated.
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