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Hepatitis B vaccine to be added to childhood immunisation schedule

New hexavalent vaccine will be offered to babies born from 1st August

Mark Gould

Monday, 10 July 2017

All babies born from the 1st of August in the UK will receive the hepatitis B vaccine as part of their routine immunisation schedule. The vaccine will be added to the 5-in-1 vaccine that is already given to protect from diphtheria, tetanus, whooping cough, polio and Hib.

The move brings the UK into line with other countries which began to offer the vaccine after the World Health Organisation (WHO) recommended in 1992 that babies should be immunised against the virus.

It is hoped that offering the hexavalent vaccine will drive down viral infections that cause cirrhosis and liver cancer. In children, the virus can linger for years causing serious liver damage.

Sema Mandal, a consultant in immunisation, hepatitis and blood safety at Public Health England (PHE), told The Guardian that the vaccine had been used widely and safely for many years, with about 150 million doses given to children since 2000.

“This has had a major impact on preventing infection in many countries. While hepatitis B is relatively uncommon in the UK, it is a major cause of cirrhosis and liver cancer globally,” she said. “From this autumn children in the UK will also be able to benefit from this safe and effective vaccine.”

Health officials delayed the introduction of the vaccine for all infants because there was no cost-effective combination vaccine available in the UK. To date, the vaccine has been available on the NHS only as a separate vaccine and has mostly been given to children considered at high risk of catching the virus, such as those born to infected mothers.

Britain has very low rates of hepatitis B in general, but the infection is more common in some inner-city areas where as many as 1% of antenatal women carry the infection. Most infections in the UK are found in people who inject drugs and those who have unprotected sex with multiple partners.

Higher rates are seen in children who were born in countries where the virus is rife. In regions such as sub-Saharan Africa, most of Asia and the Pacific Islands, 10% or more have chronic hepatitis B infections.

“People with hepatitis B infection may not be aware they are infected as infection mostly has no symptoms. As adults are the majority of infected individuals, vaccinating children will protect them in childhood from potential exposure to infected household or family members. Vaccinating infants will essentially reduce the risk of infection and will provide longer-term protection against future exposure risks,” PHE said in a statement.

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