Immunization experts at the Centers for Disease Control (CDC)in Atlanta voted this week to recommend that infants beroutinely vaccinated against the viral liver disease hepatitis B.

Four million infants are born in the United States each year,representing a massive expansion of the hepatitis B vaccinemarket, which is shared by Merck & Co. Inc. of Rahway, N.J.,and SmithKline Beecham Corp. of Philadelphia. Only about 4million people have been vaccinated to date, said HaroldMargolis, CDC Hepatitis Branch chief.

Hepatitis B, which is spread mainly through sexual contact andcontaminated blood and blood products, causes flu-likesymptoms, jaundice and cirrhosis. It is also believed to be theleading cause of liver cancer.

The CDC had targeted only high-risk individuals, such as drugabusers and health workers, for the vaccination. But theprogram has failed, said Margolis. In the United States, thenumber of people infected with the disease jumped 67 percentfrom 1979 to 1985, and the disease currently strikes 300,000people a year.

The CDC's implementation plan for the new strategy will bereleased this year and will recommend that the vaccine beincluded in part of the routine child vaccination schedule. --Rachel Nowak

(c) 1997 American Health Consultants. All rights reserved.