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Last Updated: Wednesday, 21 November 2007, 00:08 GMT
Migration 'fuelling Hepatitis B'
Child is vaccinated
Hepatitis B could be added to the list of childhood vaccinations
Increasing immigration means the UK must start thinking seriously about vaccinating every new child against Hepatitis B, specialists claim.

The Hepatitis B Foundation UK estimates the number of cases of the condition has almost doubled in six years, due in part to the arrival of infected people.

There is currently nothing to stop this estimated figure - 326,000 - doubling again, it says.

The charity also wants to see at-risk groups targeted, tested and treated.

The Hepatitis B virus is transmitted through contact with the bodily fluids of an infected person, for instance via unprotected sex or the sharing of contaminated needles.

We are not in the middle of a major public health problem yet, but we need to start looking ahead before we find ourselves in one
Professor Graham Foster

Mothers also tend to pass it on to their children during childbirth.

It is much more infectious than the HIV virus. In its acute form, it kills 5% of those who contract it, and in its chronic form it leads to serious and sometimes fatal liver conditions in as many as 50% of patients.

"We are not in the middle of a major public health problem yet, but we need to start looking ahead before we find ourselves in one," says Professor Graham Foster, a consultant hepatologist who helped draw up the report.

"At the moment many immigrant groups are not well integrated - they stick together. Hopefully that will change, but at the same time it is in the areas where community relations are thriving, where people are integrated, that we start to see the health problems."

Selective immunisation

South-east Asia and Africa have high levels of Hepatitis B, compared to Europe.

But within Europe itself there are major variations in prevalence, and the Continent accounts for at least 22,000 of the 500,000 deaths the infection causes each year.

Many of the new EU members have much higher rates of infection than the states they join, and the expansion of the bloc is seen as factor in the rising number of cases in the UK.

The Hepatitis B Foundation UK now estimates that there are some 326,000 cases, compared to 180,000 in 2002. However, it acknowledges these figures are of necessity conjecture, as they are not collected.

The UK is one of few countries in the world which offers selective rather than universal immunisation due to its low infection rate, although the World Health Organisation advises all infants be vaccinated.

But the charity says that even selective immunisation is not carried out thoroughly.

It claims that in the NHS South East Coast region, for instance, only 13% of at-risk babies had received the requisite four doses of vaccine by the time they were two.

A Department of Health spokesperson said the UK had one of the lowest prevalence rate of the disease in the world and had in place a "range of measures to prevent and control it".

"We keep the UK's hepatitis B immunisation programme under ongoing review.

"The Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) is currently reviewing the programme and will offer advice once all the evidence has been considered."



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