Conquering hepatitis B

A revolution for public health and vaccine safety



A global health problem

The World Health Organisation (WHO) has calculated that at least 2 billion people have been infected with the hepatitis B virus (HBV) at some point in their lives. Most people experience no symptoms from the virus and their immune systems manage to clear it without them knowing. More than 250 million people, 3.5% of the global population, however, remain chronically infected. Very few people are aware they have the virus. They face the risk of later developing liver cancer and cirrhosis. The HBV is the tenth leading cause of death globally. In 2015 the WHO recorded 887,000 deaths from hepatitis B complications.

The HBV is 50-100 times more infectious than HIV. Few realise just how easily the virus can spread by exposure to blood, like in the birthing process. Mother-to-child is one of the most important transmission points for infection. And yet, because the virus 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. For example, 90% of infants who contract the HBV at birth and 30% of those who become infected before the age of 5 become chronic carriers of the virus. Long-term follow-up studies have shown that between 15% and 40% of those who become chronically infected as children face the likelihood of dying 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 and liver cancer around the world. Despite this, hepatitis B remains a significant public health threat.

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 drug addicts sharing needles.


Raising awareness about hepatitis B and its vaccine

We are seeking partners and funds to build a public engagement platform to foster a better understanding of hepatitis B and the science behind its vaccine. Our platform will be centred around an online digital exhibition that will use historical sources, film footage and 3D animations to tell the story behind the HBV 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 our project. We will invite these different groups to share their experiences and get involved in guiding the development of the digital exhibition and to participate in conversations around its content when it goes live online. The exhibition will be hosted permanently online on WhatIsBiotechnology.org (WiB). WiB is an independent non-profit organisation that provides free educational resources online. Launched in 2013 WiB attracts visitors worldwide, including school children, scientists, industry experts and policy-makers.


Collaborative initiative

The hepatitis B project is an international collaboration. It is being led by Dr Lara Marks, the managing editor of WiB. She is honoured to be collaborating with Dr Paul Offit, director of the Vaccine Education Center at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia; Donald Rayne Mitchell, director of an award-winning documentary, Hilleman: A Perilous Quest to Save the World's Children (2016), that tells the story of Maurice Hilleman who pioneered nine of the routine vaccines now given to children, including the HBV vaccine; and the European Liver Patients Association, a non-profit organisation that campaigns on the behalf of 34 liver patient groups from 27 European countries and countries in the Mediterranean Basin to raise awareness of liver disease.

Inspiration

The project builds on Offit's book, Vaccinated (2007) and Mitchell's documentary film which is part of a larger project known as The Vaccine Makers Project. It will also draw on other assets developed for The Vaccine Makers Project, including science curricula for students.

A significant inspiration for this project is Marks' digital exhibition about A healthcare revolution in the Making: The story of C├ęsar Milstein and the making of monoclonal antibodies. Launched in 2013 with UK Medical Research Council funding, this exhibition still gets over 5,000 pageviews a month and is widely used as a teaching resource.


How you can help

Intended for the benefit of the public, this project needs the generous support of donors to realise its mission. We are currently seeking funds for the first part of the project which requires a researcher to work in Philadelphia to collect and digitize the historical materials of Hilleman and Baruch Blumberg, another key pioneer of the HBV vaccine.

Funds for this project are being raised by the Biotechnology and Medicine Education Trust, a UK charity (registered number 1165469) which is a partner of the King Baudouin Foundation United States.

Benefit to donors

Donors will get a preview of the digitized documents and free access to excerpts about the HBV vaccine from Mitchell's documentary film, which will be available for educational use.

Please feel free to reach out to lara@whatisbiotechnology.org if you have any questions about our project

$100 Raised
1% towards $9,000 Goal