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The Hepatitis B Vaccine: Health 101

The hepatitis B vaccine protects your child against a liver disease that's caused by the hepatitis B virus. The virus is generally spread through bodily fluids like blood and in serious cases can lead to lifelong infection, scarring of the liver (cirrhosis), cancer, liver failure, and even death.

Children are most likely to contract hepatitis B from infected adults, including from infected mothers during birth (which is why the vaccine is administered to babies soon after they're born, before they leave the hospital). Unlike hepatitis A, this virus is not spread through casual contact or contaminated food or water. Adults are commonly infected with hepatitis B from high-risk behaviors like sharing needles or having sex with an infected person or from high-risk jobs (like the healthcare field) or blood transfusions.

About 30 percent of all adults who become infected with hepatitis B have no symptoms, although others may experience fatigue, nausea, loss of appetite, abdominal pain, joint pain, or a yellowing of the skin and eyes called jaundice. Infants and children aren't as likely to experience these symptoms, but about 90 percent of those who contract hepatitis B as babies and 25 to 50 percent of children who become infected before age 6 will become infected for life, increasing their risk for serious complications later on as well as spreading the disease to others.

Since routine hepatitis B vaccination of children began in 1991, the number of cases of hepatitis B in children and teens has dropped by 95 percent -- and by 75 percent across all age groups.

The hepatitis B vaccine schedule includes one shot at birth, one between 1 and 2 months, and one again at 6 months. The entire series should be completed by the time your child is 6 to 18 months old.

This vaccine is the first one your baby will receive in the hospital, usually within the first 12 hours of life. That's because an infected mother may expose her baby to hepatitis B virus during delivery, and getting the vaccine right away helps prevent the baby from contracting the disease. "The vaccine jump-starts your baby's immune system so your child can fight off the virus if he was exposed to it during birth," says Paul Offit, MD, chief of infectious diseases at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia in Pennsylvania and American Baby magazine advisory board member.

The hepatitis B vaccine is safe to be given along with other vaccines. It's also available in two combination shots. One is called PEDIARIX and contains the DTaP and polio vaccines. A second combination shot contains both the hepatitis A and B vaccines, but is currently only approved for adults over age 18.

Hepatitis B is also recommended for unvaccinated older children, as well as adults who face an increased risk of contracting the virus because of their jobs (healthcare workers, for example), traveling to countries where hepatitis B outbreaks are common, or engaging in risky behaviors.

While the hepatitis B vaccine is one of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's recommended childhood vaccinations, children who fall into the following categories should not receive it:

  • Anyone who's had a severe allergic reaction to yeast (there's a small amount in this vaccine) or a previous dose of the hepatitis B vaccine.
  • Kids who are moderately or severely ill (more than just a cold, for example) should wait to get vaccinated.

Talk to your doctor if you're concerned about whether or not the hepatitis B vaccine is safe for your child.

Contracting hepatitis B is far more dangerous than any side effects from the vaccine. Though allergic reactions are possible, the hepatitis B vaccine generally only causes mild side effects.

  • Up to 25 percent of people will experience redness, swelling, or warmth near the shot site.
  • Up to 7 percent of people will experience a mild fever (over 99.9 F.).

As with any vaccine, severe allergic reactions are rare, but possible. If you notice your child having difficulty breathing, hoarseness or wheezing, hives, paleness, weakness, dizziness, or a rapid heartbeat shortly after receiving a shot, call your doctor right away.

Hepatitis B is still a potentially serious disease. About 1.25 million people in the U.S. have chronic HBV infection, and the virus causes complications that cause up to 5,000 deaths every year.

"The reason hepatitis B is still so common is because not enough people are getting vaccinated against it," says Offit. "If you look at the rates of infection in children under age 15 -- those who were among the first to receive the vaccine -- there's been a dramatic decrease in the number of cases. This proves that the vaccine really works."

Sources: Michael T. Brady, MD, the Vice Chair of the AAP's Committee on Infectious Diseases Neal Halsey, MD, director of the Institute for Vaccine Safety at the Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health in Maryland and a member of the Parents magazine board of advisors. Paul Offit, MD, Chief of Infectious Diseases at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia in Pennsylvania and a member of the American Baby magazine advisory board member. CDC sections on Hepatitis B Vaccination.

Copyright © 2008 Parents.com. Updated 2010

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