The British Medical Association (BMA) has today called for all children in the UK to be immunised against a potentially fatal liver disease caused by the hepatitis B virus (HBV).
HBV transmission in the UK is on the increase, the virus is 50 to 100 times more infectious than the AIDS virus. In England and Wales for example, HBV notifications rose from 489 in 1992 to 1151 in 2003 ? a 135% increase.
Hepatitis B virus is transmitted by contact with blood or body fluids of an infected person, for example, from mother to child during birth, and from child to child through open wounds, or saliva as a result of biting and shared toys1. The virus can also be transmitted through the use of shared toothbrushes and razors.
Globally around two people die every minute from HBV and there are 350 million carriers of the virus worldwide. The virus can lead to cirrhosis of the liver, cancer and death. Treatment options for patients who are already infected are limited and therefore the BMA believes vaccination is the most effective method of preventing HBV infection.
The UK is one of the few developed countries that does not routinely immunise babies against HBV. The World Health Organisation (WHO) recommended that by 1997 all children should be immunised but the UK Government's has consistently declined to implement this safety measure.
Dr Sam Everington, Deputy Chairman of the BMA and an East London based GP, said today:
"It makes sense to immunise all children against hepatitis B. The vaccine is extremely safe and millions of babies around the world have been immunised and protected against a major cause of cancer."
"Hepatitis B related illness costs the NHS millions of pounds every year and causes untold suffering to patients. An immunisation programme will not only save lives but be more cost effective than treating liver disease and cancer caused by Hepatitis B."
The BMA initially called for universal immunisation in childhood for HBV in 1995.