TORONTO — Clinicians and researchers attending an international conference say all Canadian children should be vaccinated against hepatitis B starting at birth to prevent the development of potentially deadly liver disease later in life, a policy recommended by the World Health Organization.

Currently, most provinces and territories immunize children against the liver−destroying virus when they are much older, including Ontario and Nova Scotia, which suggest children be vaccinated as late as 12 years old.

Hepatitis B is transmitted through blood and other bodily fluids. The virus attacks the liver, causing ongoing scar−forming inflammation that over time can lead to cirrhosis, liver failure or liver cancer.

The call for at−birth immunization comes from international experts attending the Global Hepatitis Summit in Toronto, which runs through Sunday.

“There is a misconception that we only need to offer older children vaccination in the years before they become sexually active, since sexual activity is one of the routes of transmission,” said Dr. Harry Janssen, director of the Toronto Centre for Liver Disease, who is attending the conference.

“Hepatitis B is not just a disease that is transmitted by sexual activity, it’s also transmitted by blood−to−blood contact,” Janssen said in an interview. “Children play with each other … bite each other, scratch each other, share each other’s toothbrush. There’s household contact with people who have hepatitis B.

“So there is a definite risk of getting this infection in childhood.”

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