Hepatitis Falls to Vaccine, Malaria Doesn't

By Sternberg, Steve | Science News, September 21, 1996 | Go to article overview

Hepatitis Falls to Vaccine, Malaria Doesn't


Sternberg, Steve, Science News


Two thousand years after Hippocrates first described the sickly yellow skin now recognized as a sign of hepatitis, doctors armed with a vaccine against hepatitis B-a common form of the serious liver infection-have succeeded in interrupting its transmission in a heavily infected population.

A malaria vaccine, however, failed to protect against new infections in a major Thai study, leaving researchers without any reliable means of preventing a tropical scourge that each year kills as many as 2.5 million people worldwide, most of them children.

The hepatitis vaccine study was carried out among 1,515 healthy children in Taipei, Taiwan, where one of every five adults is infected with the hepatitis B virus. Most of the children had been inoculated as part of a massive government vaccination program begun in July 1984, soon after the first hepatitis B vaccine became available.

The program began with compulsory shots given to children at 1 month, 2 months, and 12 months of age. In the late 1980s, officials also began vaccinating unprotected school-age children. About 85 percent of children have now received the vaccine.

Huey-Ling Chen and his colleagues at the National Taiwan University Hospital in Taipei started to collect blood serum samples in 1994 from children attending a well-baby clinic at the hospital. They also stockpiled serum from students in six kindergartens and an elementary school.

The researchers tested the serum for hepatitis B surface antigen, a protein churned out by the virus. Doctors view that protein as a badge of infection.

They found that the vaccine had erected an almost impenetrable barrier to the virus, which is ordinarily transmitted at birth or through infected blood, contaminated needles, or sexual contact.

Before the Thai vaccination program began, nearly 10 percent of children were infected with the hepatitis B virus, the researchers say. Since then, the prevalence of infection has plummeted to 1.3 percent. In children born after the program began, the prevalence has dropped even further, to a fraction of a percent.

"What this tells us is that it is possible to control hepatitis B if you vaccinate appropriately," says Robert H. Purcell, head of the hepatitis viruses section at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases in Bethesda, Md. …

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