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It sounds like a medical researcher's wishful dream, but it's a reality today: The most common cause of liver cancer worldwide can be stopped with simple vaccination shots.

Indeed, in the United States alone, about 6,500 deaths due to liver cancer or cirrhosis could be prevented each year if this vaccine -- which prevents hepatitis B -- were more widely used.

Hepatitis B, a viral disease, attacks the liver with often fatal consequences. Highly infectious, the disease spreads though infected blood or bodily fluids. It results in symptoms, including yellowed skin and eyes, nausea, fatigue and joint pain. Though treatment is sometimes helpful, there is no cure for the disease.

The longer a person has hepatitis B, the greater the chances of developing hepatoma, or liver cancer. People with chronic, or lifetime, hepatitis B infections are about 700 times more likely to develop liver cancer than a non-infected person.

Because of hepatitis B's transmission mechanisms, one sexual partner can infect another, a drug user can spread the disease by sharing needles and an infected pregnant woman can pass it to her child during birth. Those who live with an infected person or have jobs that bring them into contact with blood are also at higher-than-average risk of contracting the disease.

Far from being a new wonder drug, the hepatitis B vaccine has been available since 1982. The immunization is given in three injections, spaced over six months. Yet far too many people have never received this protection or fail to take the full series of shots.

Due to the dangerous consequences of hepatitis B infection, the American Academy of Pediatrics and other professional groups now have recommended that the immunizations be given to all infants. But anyone -- of any age -- who has never received the injections should be vaccinated as well.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 240,000 people in the United States get hepatitis B each year. If they had been vaccinated before contact with an infected individual, 90 to 95 percent of these new cases would not have developed.

There are some people who, for unclear reasons, are resistant to the vaccine's beneficial effects. They may need to be revaccinated. Post-vaccine testing to check on immunity strength is recommended for those with health care jobs, whose immune systems are compromised or whose sex partners have chronic hepatitis B infection.

It usually takes years for liver cancer to develop from a hepatitis B infection. But about 60 percent of all liver cancer cases are caused by hepatitis B. How sad that the pain from the cancer cases and resulting deaths could have been prevented with a readily available vaccine.

Nonetheless, some insurance companies won't pay for hepatitis B vaccinations, even though medical costs for a nonvaccinated patient who develops liver cancer after contracting hepatitis B is enormously more costly.

Such bureaucratic shortsightedness may be overcome by those patients who are able to afford the $150 or so that the series of injections costs. Free public health clinics in some areas also offer hepatitis B immunizations. Doctors and clinics also can test you for hepatitis B infection and recommend treatment.

Adolescents and adults who have never been immunized should get this protection against hepatitis B as soon as possible.

Hepatitis B should not be confused with two other forms of hepatitis: hepatitis A and hepatitis C. Hepatitis C is similar to hepatitis B, but there is no vaccine available for this virus. Hepatitis A causes a short-term liver infection, not a long-term disease. Travelers who drink contaminated water commonly contract it. A vaccine is available to prevent hepatitis A.

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