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EDITIONS
 Thursday, 16 January, 2003, 11:36 GMT
Call for hepatitis B vaccination
Drug user
Hepatitis B can be transmitted through sharing needles
Leading liver doctors are calling for children to be immunised against the potentially fatal condition hepatitis B.

They say there is a larger pool of people with the disease coming into the UK, increasing the risk of spreading the infection.

Hepatitis B is the most common serious liver infection in the world, and is thought to be the leading cause of liver cancer.

It is estimated by the World Health Organization that hepatitis B infections lead to more than one million deaths each year.

Universal vaccination is the only way forward

Professor Roger Williams, University College London
Most other European countries do have vaccination programmes, but the UK has had a relatively low number of cases - around 600 each year in England.

And there are concerns that, although the vaccine can prevent infection, it has been linked to side-effects including multiple sclerosis and paralysis.

But pressure for wide-scale vaccination is growing because of estimates that an average of 6,000 infected people enter the UK each year.

Pool

Currently, only babies born to infected mothers and some drug users are vaccinated.

The Department of Health has set up a committee which is looking at a hepatitis B vaccinations.

The Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation will considering all options, including vaccinating children or teenagers. It is due to report later this year.

A leading liver doctor, Professor Roger Williams, director of the Institute of Hepatology at the University College London told BBC News Online he backed childhood vaccination.

"I am in favour of vaccinating children because of the huge pool of hepatitis B that's now present in the country.

"Universal vaccination is the only way forward."

He added: "Teenagers are unreliable in terms of attending for vaccination and people don't think it will affect them.

"The only way of reaching the whole uninfected population is by vaccination at birth."

A Department of Health spokesman said: "The Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation have set up a working group to consider the issue.

"It is part of a fairly regular review process."

Carriers

It is thought that about one in three people in the world is infected by hepatitis B virus.

However, about 50% of those who carry the virus never develop any symptoms.

There are five strains of hepatitis, the generic term for inflammation of the liver:

  • A - can affect anyone and does not cause chronic infection, transmitted through faeces;
  • B - can cause lifelong infection, cirrhosis and cancer, transmitted through body fluids;
  • C - carried in the blood, spread via contact with the blood of another infected person;
  • D - also found in the blood, needs hepatitis B to exist, transmitted through blood;
  • E - the rarest form, transmitted through faeces.
See also:

01 Oct 02 | Health
01 Jun 02 | Asia-Pacific
23 Aug 01 | G-I
19 Mar 99 | South Asia
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