Raising awareness about Hepatitis B and its vaccine
New Histories of Health: NHS 70 series
According to the World Health Organisation more than 3.5% of the world’s population are chronically infected with the hepatitis B virus (HBV), the tenth leading cause of death globally. Few people, however, realise the HBV is 50-100 times more infectious than HIV and just how easily it can spread by exposure to blood, like in the birthing process.
Mother-to-child is one of the most important transmission points for HBV infection. And yet, because the HBV can persist chronically without any noticeable symptoms, many new mothers are completely unaware that they are infected at the time of childbirth. Another key transmission route is between an infected child and an uninfected child during the first 5 years of life. Those infected with the HBV early in life are more likely to develop a chronic infection and die prematurely from cirrhosis or liver cancer.
The only thing that can break the cycle of hepatitis B infection is the HBV vaccine. First introduced in the early 1980s, the HBV vaccine has dramatically reduced the incidence of hepatitis B around the world. One of the uphill struggles now is getting communities to recognise the need for the vaccine in the perceived absence of the disease. This is not helped by the fact that conversations about hepatitis B are often constrained by cultural misconceptions that hepatitis B is only spread by promiscuous sexual behaviour or the sharing of needles among drug users.
This paper discusses the development of a public engagement platform to foster greater understanding of hepatitis B and the science behind its vaccine. The platform will be centred around an online digital exhibition that will use historical sources and film footage to tell the story behind the hepatitis B vaccine. This is a compelling story because the vaccine not only dramatically reduced the global burden of hepatitis B, it was also the first vaccine to provide prevention against a human cancer. In addition its development transformed the safety and efficacy of vaccines overall.
Engagement with key stakeholder groups including patients, families, practitioners, scientists, advocacy groups and charities lies at the heart of the project. Different groups will be invited to share their experiences and get involved in the development of the digital exhibition and to participate in conversations around its content when it goes live online.