Shortage of Hepatitis B vaccine - prioritization of vaccinations announced in UK

According to a recent announcement made by Public Health England, there is a global shortage of vaccines used against hepatitis B infection. This announcement is followed up by a “prioritisation guidance” which means that persons who are at greatest risk of getting hepatitis B are to be vaccinated on priority if they have not received the vaccine before.

Image Cerdit: Sherry Yates Young / Shutterstock
Image Cerdit: Sherry Yates Young / Shutterstock

The shortage says the announcement is due to problems that have arisen in the manufacturing process. Until the problems are solved, these measures that mean that only those at greatest risk are vaccinated on priority, would be in place until 2018. The risk of contracting hepatitis B is low in the UK but the vaccine is given to all those who are exposed to the infected body fluids from other infected persons and are thus at risk of getting the infection. These high risk vulnerable population include babies whose mothers are infected with hepatitis B or persons who have a sexual partner with hepatitis B, intravenous drug abusers who share needles and also healthcare workers who handle infected body fluids. Persons getting tattoos from unsafe places are also at risk and need the vaccination.

Babies are routinely vaccinated against hepatitis B at two, three and four months under the routine childhood immunisation programme using the combined vaccine. Since this combined vaccine is not affected by this shortage, routine immunization of babies would continue as before.

According to a spokeswoman at the PHE, more stock is being gathered by the manufacturers and the problems would soon be resolved. Since hepatitis B vaccine is difficult to manufacture, this problem has come up. Till it is resolved, she said, the high risk groups and babies would not be deprived. Others would be vaccinated as soon as the issues are resolved. She reiterated that UK is a low risk country for hepatitis B transmission. Till the issues are resolved, risk of hepatitis B infection could be reduced markedly by not sharing needles, avoiding unprotected sex, avoiding tattoos and piercings or invasive medical, surgical or dental care while abroad especially in countries where hepatitis B is more prevalent for example countries in East Asia and Sub Saharan Africa where 5-10% adults are infected with hepatitis B. She added that the shortages should be resolved early 2018.

Hepatitis B

Hepatitis B is a viral infection of the liver that is spread when contact is made with blood or body fluids of an infected person. There may be mild symptoms at the beginning of the infection including nausea and vomiting, loss of appetite, fatigue, fever, aches and pains, headaches and symptoms of jaundice. The infection may take between 40 and 160 days to develop (incubation period). Some individuals do not develop any symptoms at all. Common ways in which infection spreads is when a person is transfused with blood from an infected person, having unprotected or anal sex with an infected person, sharing needles with an infected person and from an infected mother to her baby.

Hepatitis B is diagnosed using a blood test that detects antibodies the body has produced against the virus. Liver function tests are performed to check how well the liver is working and an ultrasound scan may be performed to look at the liver.

There is currently no specific treatment for acute hepatitis B and treatment is aimed at making the patient as comfortable as possible until the infection resolves. Patients can take painkillers to relieve any symptoms of pain. Chronic hepatitis B is treated using antiviral medications that slow production of the virus and minimize damage to the liver. Vaccination is recommended for people who are at a greater risk of getting hepatitis B.

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