(Informed Parent 4/2003)

File on 4, 28/10/03 (BBC Radio 4) examined growing concerns over the rise in the number of cases of the potentially fatal liver disease, Hepatitis B.

Although the overall incidence is low - around 800 new cases a year - there have been sharp increases in particular areas of the country. In Bristol doctors at the local clinic for sexually transmitted diseases report a mini-epidemic which is running at seven times the national average.

"I can't see any good reason why the same thing that's happened in Bristol shouldn't happen in Birmingham , Brighton or any other city, " says the consultant in charge of the clinic, Peter Greenhouse.

"It may be a little bit more acute here at the moment but I think you need to watch out because it's coming your way,

The government's Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation is now considering universal immunisation  against Hepatitis B. Currently in the UK , only high-risk groups are routinely vaccinated against the blood-borne virus. These include doctors and nurses and other health workers. Drug addicts and prostitutes are also targeted.

But, with the Committee due to report by the end of the year, File On 4 reveals growing concern over the possible side effects of the vaccine. A group of people who became ill after being given the vaccine at work are trying to bring the UK's first legal action against the manufacturers. They are suffering a range of conditions including rheumatoid arthritis, multiple sclerosis and epilepsy and claim they were not warned of possible side effects.

One of them, Steve Harrison, a former refuse collector from Brighton, was given the jab after clearing out flats where drug addicts had discarded syringes. Within ten days, his health deteriorated and he was later diagnosed with severe rheumatoid arthritis.

He told the programme: "I used full of life. I ran a football team and out dancing a lot. Now I'm disabled have to take pills morning, noon and night. My wife has to help me to the toilet and bathe me."

The vaccine manufacturers Aventi Pasteur told File On 4 they could no comment on the case while legal proceedings were active. Both they and GSK, the other firm making the vaccine in Britain, maintain that it is safe and claim the benefits of universal vaccination against a potentially fatal disease far outweigh the risks of serious side effects.