Increased international travel and an influx of immigrants and asylum seekers to the UK are fuelling a rise in hepatitis B cases.
The DoH estimates that the number of cases in the UK has risen from 523 in 1992 to 180,000 in 2005.
If this trend is to be stopped, the UK needs to follow the lead of other developed countries and introduce hepatitis B into the childhood immunisation programme as soon as possible, Dr Howard Barnes, a HPA consultant in public health medicine.
He told delegates at the BMA’s annual conference on Public Health and Community Health in London last week: ‘Hepatitis B is a major public health problem, with 350 million carriers of the virus worldwide.
‘All countries where there is a prevalence of hepatitis B should incorporate it into their vaccination programme.’
Currently, only babies born to hepatitis B carriers and those in high-risk groups are immunised.
Dr Barnes said the cost of the vaccine was the problem.
‘It costs £11 per dose, which is over double the £5 per dose needed for cost-effectiveness,’ he said. But there was scope to negotiate on the price, he added.
Berkshire GP and RCGP immunisation spokesman Dr George Kassianos backed calls to introduce the hepatitis B vaccine into the immunisation programme: ‘The UK signed an agreement in the early 1990s to introduce hepatitis B vaccination by 1997. It is 10 years since the deadline passed.’
The DoH was unavailable for comment.