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Does your child need the Hepatitis B vaccine?

April 02, 2014

Written by David Sunnenberg, pediatric hospitalist at Arnold Palmer Hospital

As a pediatric hospitalist, much of the care I deliver is aimed at treating illness in hospitalized children. However, an equally important part of my job is providing preventative care and anticipatory guidance to children and their families to prevent future illnesses and hospitalizations. As part of our routine newborn care at Winnie Palmer Hospital, we offer the Hepatitis B vaccine as recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Academy of Pediatrics. To understand the importance of immunizing children against Hepatitis B, it’s important to understand why Hepatitis B is a problem.

Why should we be concerned about Hepatitis B?

Hepatitis B infection is caused by the Hepatitis B virus. This virus causes an infection of the liver that can result in acute gastrointestinal symptoms as well as chronic disease that may lead to liver damage, liver cancer, and death. Over one million Americans have Hepatitis B and several thousand people die each year. Although many people associate Hepatitis B infection with high-risk adult behaviors such as sexual activity and IV drug use, children are also at risk. Newborn babies can become infected if their mother was exposed to the Hepatitis B virus in the past. Children can also become infected by secretions from infected individuals.

Bites, sharing toothbrushes or personal items, or touching open wounds can infect a child. The virus can remain infectious outside of the body for seven days or more and is potentially infectious to unsuspecting individuals coming in contact with contaminated objects. There is no medical treatment available to eliminate Hepatitis B once an individual is infected, and many people who are chronically infected are potentially contagious to others even if they are not experiencing any symptoms.

What’s the best way to prevent infection?

Since there is no known treatment to eliminate the Hepatitis B virus once an individual is infected, primary prevention through immunization is the best way to protect yourself and your children from the Hepatitis B virus. The Hepatitis B vaccine contains a copy of one small part of the virus. Since it does not contain active live virus, the vaccine cannot cause infection. The vaccine prepares the body to fight the virus if exposed to it in the future.

Almost everyone who receives the three recommended doses of the vaccine will be protected from Hepatitis B. The first dose is recommended at birth. This first shot reduces the newborn’s risk of getting Hepatitis B from their mother or close contacts who may not know they are infected. The second dose is recommended at 1 to 3 months, and the third dose is recommended at 6 to 18 months. The vaccine is safe. Side effects include soreness at the shot site, elevated temperature, and tiredness and crankiness.  There are no known serious side effects from the vaccine.

Immunizing your child against Hepatitis B is a safe and effective way to protect your child from this potentially devastating disease.  Please do not hesitate to talk with our hospitalist team or your child’s doctor for more information on this and other important vaccines.

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