May is Hepatitis Awareness Month (according to the CDC), so I'm going to focus on something I get inquiries about all the time.
There are 5 viral types of hepatitis, aptly named A, B, C, D, and E (or HAV for Hepatitis A Virus, HBV for Hepatitis B Virus, and so on). We don't usually hear about hepatitis A and/or E here in the US, because they are transmitted by ingesting contaminated food or water (you're more likely to get listeriosis here!), which is mostly associated with developing countries and poor sanitation. If your an avid traveler, you've probably already received a HAV vaccine.
Hep B and C, though, are common in the US, and worldwide, and this is where the the inquiries come in. Hep B, C, and D are spread by contact with contaminated bodily fluids, such as blood and semen. The most common methods of transmission are through unprotected sex, and through sharing or using contaminated needles (drug use, tattoos, piercings, birth, and medical procedures). There are vaccines available for Hep B and D, but not C. Actually, the HBV vaccines also protect against HDV! Since most people do not know they are infected with a hepatitis virus, and HBV, HCV, and HDV are prevalent worldwide, the HBV vaccine is recommended for all newborns in the US.
Hep B and C kill more than 1 million people every year, and its not an easy death. Liver disease is painful, and the treatments few treatments for hepatitis can be incredibly expensive. So, to answer everyone's question all at once: Yes, I do believe the recommended vaccine schedule is necessary and important for your child, and all children for that matter.
Before I go on, let me just say that, as someone doesn't have kids of my own, I can't imagine how scary it must be at the beginning. The dichotomy of wanting to protect your kids from everything while not having them undergo a ton of procedures and get a bunch of shots because they are fragile little beings must be scary. It's ok to try to figure out what is right for you and your child, because some things are unnecessary (baby yoga? I don't know)! But, I believe vaccines are not one of those unnecessary things.
The following are most common things I hear about the HBV vaccines from concerned parents. Just a note: my language in this section is referencing people who do have access to regular medical care, and may or may not be taking advantage of it. This is something that all parents should have access to for their children, but sometimes it just isn't possible (for a number of reasons). Most often, people who are questioning the use of the HBV vaccine (and others) do have access to quality medical care, yet choose not to follow the guidelines. Descriptive demographics of the people who are chosing not to vaccinate their children include white, upper middle class or upper class, and college graduates.
So, with that being said, here are the most common things I hear about the HBV vaccine:
1. "Why would I give my baby a shot (3 to 4, actually!) for something you can only get from having sex?"
There are so many assumptions being made here. First of all, you should be glad that you have access to, and are benefiting from the privilege of having access to vaccines for your child and yourself. Most kids don't get vaccines, because they aren't mandated or they are too expensive or not available to them based on where they live. The fact that you and your child get to benefit from that is not something at which to scoff! Many children don't even live past the first few years of life because they don't have access to quality medical care and treatments.
Secondly, over 2 billion people have been exposed to hep B, and as I stated above, most people don't know that they are infected. That means there are many opportunities for your child to unknowingly be exposed. There are even opportunities for family members who don't know that they are infected to expose your kid during infancy. This vaccine will protect your child through their exploratory stages, when you might not always be around. I can't even tell you how many kids at my middle school thought blood pacts weren't serious (I think we can mostly blame that on 90s movies, right?), or in high school when everyone experimented with making their own tattoo guns. Or even had unprotected sex because they were too embarrassed to buy condoms or felt too invincible because "well, I'm not going to get AIDS from you, right?" Let's face it, pretty much every kid, teenager and young adult makes odd choices when they are figuring everything out, and that exploration really shapes who they become as adults. So, if there is a vaccine available to them that may offer some protection throughout their lives, why would you deny that?
2. "It just seems like a lot for a newborn to handle." or, alternatively, "That's a lot of chemicals to put into a newborn."
The hep B vaccine has actually gone through a few iterations before arriving at it's currently available form. In 1986, manufacturing switched to using recombinant DNA, which is significantly more safe (see: 100% safer, because it is physically impossible to get hepatitis from the vaccine) than the original product. The vaccine has been clinically tested (on many animals and humans) and approved for use in children. The recommendations set for these vaccines are based on a) the earliest safe and effective usage of the vaccine by the immune system (i.e. - will my immune system even respond to it?), how long the immune system response will last (will I need a booster shot in the future, or will this one time vaccine protect me for life?), and the need (will I potentially be exposed to the pathogen at this stage in my life?). There are many vaccines that kids in the US don't get, because they won't need them (see above where I explain that the hep A vaccine is mostly given to travelers headed to regions with poor sanitation). But, as stated above in #1, there are a lot of opportunities for people to be exposed to HBV and HDV.
3. "I'll just give it to them later in life."
Sure, do that, but they will hate you for it. I remember having to get my hep B vaccines. It hurt really badly! And I remember it hurting because I wasn't a newborn. Also, I don't say this as a scare tactic, but every day without the vaccine (or other ones, for that matter), are days that your child's immune system isn't primed and ready to go. So, for that reason, its really silly to wait, especially since most people don't need boosters.
4. "Why does anyone care what I do to my child?"
Every child without the vaccine is at risk of being exposed to the virus. If your child is infected at any point in their life, they have the ability to transmit (or spread) the virus to others, especially if they do not know that they are infected and do not take precautionary measures (using condoms, not sharing needles, etc.). Some people with compromised immune systems cannot get certain vaccines, and are therefore at a higher risk of getting infected, and developing chronic or severe disease. If you do not vaccinate your child, your child may be responsible for unknowingly spread the HBV or HDV to someone with a compromised immune system.
5. "Most people only have an acute infection that goes away on its own."
No, most ADULTS experience acute disease. Only 2-6% of adults develop severe or chronic hepatitis, whereas 90% of infected infants become chronically infected. The risk of pre-mature death due to liver disease and chronic complications from hepatitis (mostly liver failure and liver cancer) is increased by up to 25% if a child is infected in their first 5 years of life. Three shots can completely eliminate this risk for your child. The hep B vaccine can also eliminate the risk of hepatitis-linked treatments, like invasive surgeries, transplants, or cancer treatments, which increase the risk of premature death even more, and are just not easy for a child to endure.
If you are still questioning whether to vaccinate your child for hepatitis B, I recommend you talk to your pediatrician about the statewide mandated guidelines and federal recommendations. As I stated earlier, I'm sure having a child is scary. There is a lot of information out there, and it is hard to know what to believe. But, vaccinations are not something that should be questioned. It has been proven time and time again that they are safe to your child, and safe for the community, and have effectively eradicated some diseases. It is okay to be cautious, but it is also okay to trust science.
Happy Hepatitis Awareness Month!