Why Hepatitis B Vaccine is Not a Lifestyle Vaccine
Feb 27, 2012

This weekend, a colleague brought something to my attention that I’ve been thinking about all weekend.  It was a tweet that read as follows:

VaxCalc:  HPV (Gardisil) and Hep-B are lifestyle #vaccines; should govt mandate lifestyle choices?  #freedom #vaxfax

As I was thinking about this statement and conjuring up a response, I came across Dr. Natasha Burgert’s recent blog post on KC Kids Doc.   How timely!  She has created an engaging video presentation that addresses the six most common questions she hears from parents regarding the hepatitis B vaccine such as:

  1. Why does my newborn baby need a hepatitis B vaccine?
  2. What is hepatitis B?
  3. If my prenatal labs show that I am not infected with hepatitis B, why does my baby still need to get vaccinated?
  4. Isn’t hepatitis B an infection spread through sex and drug use?
  5. How could my baby get infected with hepatitis B?
  6. What if I wait until my child is older to get vaccinated?

Not only does her presentation answer many questions, but it also helps to explain that hepatitis B infections are not limited to lifestyle choices.  Many people don’t realize that they are infected, which consequently results in many cases being spread by casual contact.
The fact is that approximately 24,000 women with hepatitis B infections give birth in the U.S each year and many do not even know they are infected.  Sadly, infants infected at birth have a greater than 90% chance of suffering a chronic infections such as liver cancer, cirrhosis and liver failure when they become adults.
When it comes to the hepatitis B vaccine, it appears that one of the biggest parental concerns is the timing of the vaccine.  Since this is the first recommended immunization, parents are sometimes surprised that it’s suggested before their child even leaves the hospital. By catching them off guard, some parents feel a bit unprepared to make such an important decision. This can even result in a parent feeling hesitant about the recommendation and questioning the need for the vaccine at such a young age. Perhaps that is why one of the most popular posts on Shot of Prevention has been a piece entitled Why Infants Should Receive the Hep B Vaccine At Birth.
However, there is one thing that is extremely important to note about the hepatitis B vaccine; it’s not just preventative, but it’s also therapeutic.  See, even when tested prior to delivery, some mothers are not properly identified as being infected with hepatitis B.  But fortunately, if a child who is infected at birth receives the vaccination shortly after, their infection status can actually be altered so that they are no longer at risk of chronic infection.  I find this to be a fascinating benefit of this particular vaccine which only helps to justify the importance of the birth dose.
Most importantly, we must realize that parents and their doctors need to be having discussions regarding the recommended childhood immunization schedule long before a mother goes into labor.  Without a proper conversation regarding the risks of disease and the benefits of vaccines, it’s simply unrealistic to expect parents to make informed decisions, especially at a time when parents are often overwhelmed, exhausted, and struggling to adjust to the birth of their new baby.
There are lots of resources that parents can use to help educate themselves on the importance of the hepatitis B vaccine such as the following:
Immunization Action Coalition Information on Hepatitis B and Why the Birth Dose Saves Lives
Hep B Moms
The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP)
Perhaps with a bit of research, parents will have a better understanding of the fact that while lifestyle choices may increase a person’s risk of contracting hepatitis B as an adult, there are still ways in which infants and children can contract it without even knowing. A simple and safe vaccine, that is recommended for all children at birth, can help prevent people from suffering with chronic disease as adults.  Knowing this, it’s easy to see why the vaccine in recommended for all.

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