All babies born in the UK from 1 August 2017 will be vaccinated against hepatitis B virus, health officials have announced.
The vaccine is being added to the routine immunisation programme, meaning babies will receive three doses at 8, 12 and 16 weeks of age as part of a six-in-one vaccine that already includes diphtheria, tetanus, pertussis, polio and haemophilus influenzae type B.
Previously, infants were vaccinated only against hepatitis B if they were born to mothers who had tested positive for the virus.
The Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation, the body that advises government on immunisation policy, had previously said it wanted to recommend adding hepatitis B virus to the routine immunisation programme but in the absence of a cost-effective ‘hexavalent’ vaccine, it was unable to.
Andrew Langford, chief executive of the British Liver Trust, said the decision means that UK vaccination policy will now be in line with international recommendations.
“The World Health Organization recommended in 1992 that all children be immunised against the virus, and Britain is one of the last European countries to fall in line with the guidance,” says Langford. “We are delighted the government has finally listened to the advice of the British Liver Trust and other organisations and that from the beginning of August, all babies in the UK will be given it as part of the hexavalent immunisation programme.”
About one in 350 people in the UK is chronically infected with hepatitis B. If infected, the majority of adults will clear the infection naturally, but it becomes chronic in 85% of infected newborns. As well as being transmitted from mother to child, the virus can also be spread through sexual intercourse and needle sharing.
“The introduction of hepatitis B vaccine as part of the childhood immunisation programme means children will now be routinely protected against this serious infection, which is a major cause of cirrhosis and liver cancer in later life,” says Sema Mandal, consultant in immunisation, hepatitis and blood safety at Public Health England.