The failure of the UK to introduce universal hepatitis B immunisation means most UK citizens are susceptible to infection, an infectious diseases expert has warned in the British Medical Journal (BMJ).
Andrew Pollard, Reader in Paediatric Infection and Immunity at Oxford University, says the UK is one of the few developed countries that still does not routinely immunise children against hepatitis B, despite a call by the World Health Organization for the global introduction of vaccine prevention programmes by 1997.
Earlier this year, the British Medical Association (BMA) also called upon the Department of Health "to introduce the hepatitis B vaccine into the childhood schedule without further delay."
The main argument against introducing universal immunisation is the relatively low incidence of disease in the UK compared with other countries. However, 180,000 people in the UK are chronically infected with hepatitis B virus and 7,700 new cases of chronic infection are detected each year.
Growing travel and migration also put the UK population at risk of exposure from abroad, says Dr Pollard, who argues that "the easiest and cheapest way to protect UK children is to add hepatitis B vaccine to the current UK primary immunisation schedule in early infancy".
He also says that the recent proposal to introduce vaccination to prevent cervical cancer in pre-adolescents from next year could provide a vehicle for implementing a concomitant adolescent hepatitis B programme to prevent liver cancer.
This, he suggests, would generate a group of immune individiuals more quickly than universal infant immunisation alone, and hasten the control of the hepatitis B virus in the UK.