There is no cure for hepatitis B infection, so doctors rely on vaccinations to help prevent it. Hepatitis B attacks the liver and may lead to life-threatening complications without treatment.
Hepatitis B infection is a potentially serious condition. According to a new American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) policy, newborns should now get their first hepatitis B vaccine in their first day of life.
Although most people consider the vaccine to be crucial to the safety of a child, others oppose it. In many cases, this opposition is due to misinformation or concern for the child.
Why is it recommended?
The hepatitis B vaccine is very safe.
The AAP recommend that newborns receive their first dose of the hepatitis B vaccine within the first 24 hours of their life.
One reason for this is that it is possible for the birth mother to pass the infection onto the baby, which is known as a perinatal infection.
If a newborn contracts hepatitis B, there is a significant chance that this infection will be chronic, meaning that it will persist for a long time.
Without treatment, it is possible that the infant will die from complications of the infection.
Benefits of the hepatitis B vaccine
The main benefit of the vaccine is its effectiveness. The AAP note that if doctors give the first dose of the hepatitis B vaccine within 24 hours of the baby’s delivery, it is 75 to 95 percent effective in preventing the passage of hepatitis B from the birth mother to the baby.
If the newborn also receives the medication hepatitis B immune globulin (HBIG) at the correct time and a series of follow-up vaccines, the AAP estimate that the infection rate drops to between 0.7 and 1.1 percent.
For the best possible protection, the baby will need to complete the full series of vaccines.
Is it safe?
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) state that the vaccine is very safe. The full series of the vaccine provides the highest possible level of protection from the infection.
Some people still express concern about the safety of vaccination. The reasons for this worry may vary.
Part of the fear may be due to older research. For example, a 2009 study indicated an association between the Engerix B vaccine, a specific type of hepatitis B vaccine, and an increased risk of damage to the central nervous system (CNS) later in life.
However, the researchers note that this was the exception, not the rule. They also highlight the need for more studies to validate this finding.
On the whole, their research indicates that hepatitis B vaccination generally does not increase the risk of damage to the CNS.
Vaccines are subject to constant safety monitoring both during production and once doctors begin to administer them to people. Any signs of a potentially dangerous response to a vaccine would result in immediate recall.
The majority of research indicates that hepatitis B vaccines are a safe and effective way to prevent the infection.
Possible side effects
As with any medication, the hepatitis B vaccine carries the risk of side effects.
These side effects are usually very mild. The person may have a slight fever or experience soreness in the area of the shot for a few days.
According to the CDC, the hepatitis B vaccine cannot cause hepatitis B. Although manufacturers use parts of the hepatitis B virus to create the vaccine, these are inactive. They serve only to train the body to fight against the specific cells of the virus.
Rare side effects and associations
While many people misunderstand or misstate the dangers of some aspects of vaccination, there are still possibly severe conditions that may have an association with immunization for hepatitis B.
A review in the Journal of Preventive Medicine and Hygiene discusses these possible rare complications. It is important to note that these results do not mean that the vaccination causes these conditions but that there may be an association between them.
Possible complications include:
- the abnormal cessation of breathing, called apnea, in preterm babies
- vasculitis, or inflammation of the blood vessels
- a hypotonic-hyporesponsive episode, which causes muscular issues and pale skin
- immune thrombocytopenic purpura, which causes red spots on the skin
In very rare cases, an infant may also have an extreme allergic reaction to the vaccine. Any signs of anaphylaxis, such as the baby appearing to have trouble breathing, breaking out in a rash, or changing skin tones, indicate the need for immediate medical attention.
What are the risks of not getting the vaccine?
The long-term risks of not getting the vaccine include cirrhosis of the liver and liver cancer.
The main risk of the baby not getting the vaccine is that they may contract the hepatitis B virus.
Hepatitis B primarily attacks the liver, causing inflammation that can damage this organ over time. An acute infection lasts for less than 6 months, and it may cause no symptoms in some people.
Other people do experience symptoms, which may include:
- loss of appetite
- pain in the muscles
- pain in the joints
- general fatigue
Many acute infections resolve without treatment. If the infection persists for 6 months or more, doctors will refer to it as chronic. Chronic infections increase a person’s risk of damage to the liver over time.
As this damage builds up, it can scar the liver, which is known as cirrhosis. This long-term damage may result in other complications, including liver cancer.
According to the Immunization Action Coalition, about 3,000 Americans die each year from liver failure or liver cancer resulting from hepatitis B.
Experts consider the hepatitis B vaccine to be safe and effective.
People should ideally receive the vaccine at as young an age as possible to protect them from contracting hepatitis B. The AAP recommend vaccinating newborns on the day of their birth. Although most pregnant women receive testing for hepatitis B as part of their prenatal care, the test can occasionally give a false negative result.
There is no cure for hepatitis B. Even people who recover from the infection may have a higher risk of health complications later in life. The CDC conclude that vaccination is the best way to prevent hepatitis B.