Understanding the role of Hepatitis B vaccine in preventing Liver Cancer

Dr Ankit

Dr Ankit Mahuvakar, Head and Neck Onco-surgeon at HCG Cancer Centre, Mumbai

Liver cancer, is surprisingly, emerging to be one of the fastest spreading types of cancer, affecting close to 3-5 patients per 1,00,000 people. According to the estimates shared the World Health Organisation (WHO), at least 1 in 10 Indians will develop cancer in their lifetime and liver cancer can be one of them. The main causes of liver cancer are attributed to lifestyle habits-led health disorders that can directly impact liver and its functioning. Being overweight, cigarette-smoking and drinking alcohol, chronic hepatitis B and C infections that leads to cirrhosis, fatty liver and non-alcoholic fatty liver disease or being diabetic can cause liver cancer.

Hepatitis B virus is one of the leading causes of liver cancer and is approximately 50 times more infectious than HIV. Globally, close to 257 million people are diagnosed to be chronically infected with hepatitis B eventually leading to liver cancer.

How does Hepatitis B lead to Liver Cancer?

Patients who suffer from liver cancer are typically the ones diagnosed with cirrhosis of liver (permanent scarring in the liver). To put it simply, cirrhosis is a precancerous stage which have been caused due to either chronic hepatitis B or C, fatty liver and other lifestyle habits. When it comes to patients with hepatitis B infection, it is mostly found to be contracted during birth from the mother. Failing to recognise it as a harmful foreign entity, the baby’s immature immune system allows the virus inside the body and tolerates it. The virus, hence, starts to flourish and stay in the body, ultimately leading to cirrhosis. This causes the DNA in the liver cells to get damaged and cause liver cancer. Owing to the presence of normal liver enzymes, the condition may not show up immediately with symptoms. That is why, it is important to get ultrasound scans and blood tests done to check any development of liver cancer.
How does Hepatitis B vaccine help in preventing Liver Cancer?

The first anti-cancer vaccine, Hepatitis B vaccine helps in preventing chronic hepatitis B infections by producing antibodies that protects us against the disease. It is recommended for all adults and children who are at risk of hepatitis B infection and want to stay protected. For adults, hepatitis B vaccine is given in three doses over six months, keeping at least a gap of 1-4 weeks in between. However, it must be remembered that vaccination will not be able to protect if the patient is suffering from chronic hepatitis B.

Since the role of the vaccine is to prevent hepatitis B infections, it results in preventing liver cancer that may be caused by the hepatitis B virus. In fact, if vaccinated at the time of birth, it can result in reducing the burden of hepatitis B and liver cancer cases dramatically.

Hepatitis B vaccine to safeguard the new born

Hepatitis B vaccine can protect the population that is probably at risk of contracting chronic hepatitis B infection, the new borns, from their mother during or shortly after birth. Although there is no particular age to get infected with hepatitis B and it may happen at any point in their lives, the risk of chronic infection and eventually, liver cancer drops off rapidly with age. Since the risk for a new born to contract the virus is as high as 90%, for five-year-olds, it can drop to 5-10%. It is, thus, important for the mothers to be kept informed about the significance of getting the vaccination done on time while raising awareness through propagating proper information during pregnancies and later.

Liver cancer can be prevented if the primary risk factors, especially chronic hepatitis B and C infections, can be eliminated. Unless prevention strategies are implemented and promoted, the number of liver cancer cases can grow up dramatically in the coming 20 years. Taking an integrated approach for promoting vaccine programmes is necessary for comprehensive cancer cure plan, thereby, strengthening the healthcare system in the country.

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