Top doctors urge jabs for liver disease

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The Independent Online
Children should be routinely vaccinated against hepatitis B, a potentially fatal liver disease, according to leading doctors who yesterday criticised the Government for ignoring expert advice recommending universal vaccination.

Since 1992 about 75 countries, including France, Italy and the United States, have adopted the World Health Organisation's policy to immunise children, but the Department of Health says it has no plans to do so.

Stephen Dorrell, Secretary of State for Health, yesterday reiterated the Government's opposition to WHO policy. "The reason we have not gone down this path is because the UK has one of the lowest rates of this disease anywhere in the world. We do make it available to high-risk groups, but we are not persuaded of the necessity of vaccinating all children." He added that claims that increased vaccination would lead to eradication of the disease needed to be assessed.

Dr Deirdrie Kelly, of Birmingham Children's Hospital, and a member of a new consensus panel made up of the top British virologists and liver experts who are campaigning for wider use of vaccination, said: "We believe it is every child's right to be protected from hepatitis B ... It is high time the British government introduced a similar policy [to other countries] to protect the UK's children, otherwise British children may be the only European children at risk from hepatitis B in the millennium."

Professor Arie Zuckerman, Dean of the Royal Free Hospital Medical School in London and a WHO consultant, said more people in Britain are at risk of developing hepatitis B as a result of an increase in the number of chronic carriers and more foreign travel.

Hepatitis B, which is 100 times more infectious than the Aids virus, is contracted through sexual intercourse, contact with infected blood or other body fluids, and can be passed from mother to baby. There 350 million carriers of the virus worldwide, and it claims 2 million lives each year. The consequences are more serious for children than adults, with about one-quarter of cases proving fatal. Cirrhosis, liver cancer and liver failure can follow infection.

At a conference in London yesterday researchers presented evidence that 15- to 25-year-olds throughout Europe are particularly vulnerable to the virus because of their behaviour and largely ignorant about hepatitis B and its consequences.