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Wednesday, 14 June, 2000, 01:28 GMT 02:28 UK
Europe 'at risk' from hepatitis outbreak
1,676 cases of hepatitis A were reported in England and Wales last year
Europe risks a hepatitis epidemic unless countries establish mass immunisation programmes to fight the virus, experts have warned.

Speakers at a major conference in Italy have called on European Governments to introduce a vaccination programme against hepatitis A.

They warned that increased travel by Europeans abroad and the arrival of people from outside Europe, including refugees, heightened the chances of an hepatitis A epidemic.

Outbreaks have recently occurred in Italy and Spain.


According to the experts, Europeans are vulnerable to the virus because they have not developed an immunity to it.

Prof Pierre Van Damme of the University of Antwerp said the virus is "travelling" to Europe.

Vaccination programmes offer a very powerful solution

Brian Gushunk, International Organisation for Migration
"The change in hepatitis A epidemiology in Europe makes populations who were hitherto unlikely to come into contact with hepatitis A - unless they travelled far afield - much more vulnerable to infection in their own home countries.

"Instead of Europeans travelling to the disease, it is now increasingly travelling to them." The speakers said Governments would save money by introducing vaccination schemes.

It is, they said, much more cost effective than trying to contain an outbreak of the virus.

Brian Gushunk of the International Organisation for Migration called on public health departments to examine the potential of vaccinating against hepatitis A.

"The recognition and management of this issue is essential if we are not to have a potentially major public health problem on our hands in the very near future.

"Vaccination programmes offer a very powerful solution and those responsible for public health in Europe must examine this option as a priority."

Not a priority

But Dr Nigel Higson, chairman of the primary care virology group - a group of GPs with an interest in infectious diseases - said it was unlikely that a vaccination programme would be introduced in the UK.

"I don't think it would be a priority in the UK. We have other diseases which have a greater priority."

However, he urged anybody travelling abroad to be vaccinated against Hepatitis A.

Hepatitis A can knock people for six

Dr Nigel Higson, Primary Care Virology Group
"Hepatitis A can knock people for six. Anybody who is travelling abroad should be vaccinated against it."

Hepatitis A is generally contracted through ingestion of faecally contaminated food and water.

It is a viral infection of the liver which leads to weakness, lack of appetite, abdominal pain, nausea and vomiting.

Up to 10 million cases of hepatitis A occur world-wide every year.

Last year, 1676 cases were reported in England and Wales.

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