The UK government is being urged to vaccinate all children against hepatitis B and finally comply with World Health Organisation guidelines.

This latest bid to force a change in policy is spearheaded by the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry, the British Liver Trust and the Hepatitis B Foundation who have launched a petition and demanded urgent action. They note that the WHO called for countries to introduce universal childhood immunisation against the disease more than 15 years ago, but the UK is not among the 116 countries who have complied.

Chronic hepatitis B is 50 times more infectious than HIV and affects more than 325,000 patients in the UK. It can develop into potentially fatal conditions such as liver cancer and cirrhosis, and once contracted cannot be cured.

"Lives are being put at risk. A programme needs to be put into place to ensure that all British children are inoculated against hepatitis B," said Richard Tiner, medical director at the ABPI. "It is a matter of public health,” he claiming, adding that “much of the rest of Europe operates mass childhood vaccination programmes – it is time that the UK followed suit."

Imogen Shillito, director of information and education at the British Liver Trust, said that in the UK, the government “only vaccinates those deemed to be at high risk but evidence shows that this policy is failing”. She noted that a recent investigation into National Health Service use of the vaccine found that “only half of GP practices are following clinical guidelines on protecting patients. This is leaving millions of patients at risk of a preventable disease”.