The Hepatitis A Vaccine: Health 101
Learn why and when your child needs the hepatitis A vaccine.
Why does my child need the hepatitis A vaccine?
The hepatitis A vaccine protects against a liver disease that's caused by the hepatitis A virus. The virus is generally spread from person to person (especially from unwashed hands) and can sometimes be transmitted through contaminated food or water.
Although hepatitis A is not as serious as hepatitis B or C (those infections turn into chronic illnesses, whereas a bout of hepatitis A usually clears up in a couple of months), it's still dangerous. Some people who become infected with hepatitis A have very mild or no symptoms, especially children under 6 (about 70 percent will have no symptoms at all). Those who do develop symptoms may experience fever, fatigue, nausea, loss of appetite, abdominal pain, dark urine, or a yellowing of the skin and eyes called jaundice. Mild cases usually go away on their own, but about 20 percent of people with hepatitis A infections have to be hospitalized. In very rare cases, the virus can cause liver failure and even death.
Before the hepatitis A vaccine was introduced in 1995, the virus infected around 25,000 people in the U.S. annually. Even though many cases went undiagnosed (because people didn't show symptoms) it's estimated that children under age 4 were most affected. Since the vaccine has become widely used, hepatitis A infections have decreased by nearly 90 percent.
What's the recommended hepatitis A schedule?
The hepatitis A vaccine schedule includes two shots given between 12 and 23 months with the second dose given at least six months after the first. (Until 2006, the vaccine was only routinely recommended for children living in states with the highest rates of infection, but now it is recommended for all children older than 12 months.)
The hepatitis A vaccine is safe to be given along with other vaccines.
Hepatitis A vaccine is also recommended for older children who didn't get the vaccine as infants, as well as adults who face an increased risk of contracting the virus because of high-risk jobs or behaviors or travel to high-risk regions (like Central or South America, Mexico, Asia, Africa, and Eastern Europe) or because they currently live in communities that have been deemed high-risk because of recent hepatitis A outbreaks.
Who shouldn't get the hepatitis A vaccine?
While the hepatitis A vaccine is one of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's recommended childhood vaccinations, those who fall into the following categories should not receive it:
- Kids who've had a severe allergic reaction to a previous hepatitis A shot.
- Kids who are moderately or severely ill (more than just a cold, for example) should wait to get vaccinated.
- Anyone who's pregnant (the safety of the hepatitis A vaccine has not been determined for expectant women, although there's no evidence that it's risky for fetuses either).
Talk to your doctor if you're concerned about whether or not the hepatitis A vaccine is safe for you or your child.
Are there any side effects from the hepatitis A vaccine?
Contracting hepatitis A is more dangerous than any side effects from the vaccine. Though allergic reactions are possible, the hepatitis A vaccine generally only causes mild side effects; they usually last only one or two days.
- Up to 17 percent of kids will experience redness, swelling, or warmth near the shot site.
- Up to 8 percent will experience loss of appetite.
- Up to 4 percent will experience headaches.
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.
Is the hepatitis A vaccine really necessary?
The chance of death from a hepatitis A infection is very small, but most doctors still recommend that children get vaccinated in order to reduce the overall number of hepatitis A infections. Studies show that children are more likely to spread the virus because they show fewer symptoms and have less-developed hygiene habits than adults.
By getting vaccinated, your child is much less likely to contract and spread the hepatitis A virus to your family or to other adults who are much more likely to get sick, says Michael T. Brady, MD, the Vice Chair of the American Academy of Pediatrics' Committee on Infectious Diseases. So far, vaccinating children against hepatitis A has significantly decreased the number of infections across all age groups in the U.S.
Sources: Michael T. Brady, MD, the Vice Chair of the AAP's Committee on Infectious Diseases. 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 A Vaccination.
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