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 life. 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, become chronically infected. Very few of these people will be aware they have the virus. They face the risk of later developing liver cancer and cirrhosis from the virus. The HBV is the tenth leading cause of death globally. In 2015 the World Health Organisation 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 infected with the virus 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 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 the sharing of needles among drug users.

Raising awareness about hepatitis B and its vaccine

We are seeking 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 hepatitis B vaccine. This is a compelling story because the HBV 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 free online permanently on

Click here to see a timeline of key events behind the growing understanding about hepatitis B as a disease, its prevention and treatment.

About the team

The hepatitis B project is an international collaboration. WhatIsBiotechnology is honoured to be collaborating with the following organisations in this effort:

Vaccine Education Center at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (VEC) - Led by Dr. Paul Offit, the VEC has been providing accurate, comprehensive and up-to-date information about vaccines and the diseases they prevent since the fall of 2000.

Medical History Pictures(MHP) - This U.S.-based non-profit organization recently produced the 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. Donald Rayne Mitchell, director of the film, is leading the MHP effort in the hepatitis B project, including provision of essential footage of interviews with leaders in the field such as Dr. Baruch Blumberg and Dr. Maurice Hilleman.

European Liver Patients Association (ELPA) - This non-profit organisation was launched in 2005 at the annual conference of the European Association for the Study of the Liver to help patients share their experiences and very different approaches to liver disease in different countries. ELPA represents 34 liver patient groups from 27 European countries and countries in the Mediterranean Basin. It is helping get patients involved in the hepatitis B project’s engagement activities.

How you can help

Intended for the benefit of the public, this project needs the generous support of donors to realise its mission. Any donation however small or large is very welcome. Funds are needed to cover the costs of a researcher to 1) collect, curate, digitise and make available permanently online historical sources in a number of archives, including in the US; 2) write content for the exhibition and 3) create the back-end custom code that will make the online exhibition accessible and easy to navigate for users of all ages. Donors will get a preview of the digitised documents and free access to excerpts about the HBV vaccine from Mitchell’s documentary film, which will be available for educational use. .

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