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Most infants receive the hepatitis B vaccine soon after birth – nearly always before leaving the hospital. Two more doses are then given between one to two months and between six to eighteen months. It is recommended that infants whose mothers have tested positive for hepatitis B, or whose status is unknown, receive the final dose of this vaccine by six months of age.
Hepatitis B is a disease of the liver. It is capable of causing either a mild illness or a more serious, long-term illness, which may lead to liver disease or cancer. The National Vaccine Information Center states that “90-95% of all cases of hepatitis B recover completely after three to four weeks of nausea, fatigue, headache, arthritis, jaundice and tender liver.”
In the United States, hepatitis B is most often transmitted via sexual contact with an infected partner. The disease may also be contracted through the sharing of needles – including tattooing, ear piercing, acupuncture and accidental needle contact in a health care environment. Finally, there is a 70-90% probability that the disease will be spread from an infected mother to her infant during birth.
Since babies not born of mothers who have hepatitis B are not at great risk for contracting the disease, then why vaccinate all newborns? The hepatitis B vaccine has been available since 1981, but was only added to the routine vaccination schedule ten years later. In the beginning, the vaccine targeted adults in groups at high risk for contracting the disease; however, this was difficult since many of these adults denied having any risk factors. It was therefore deemed more efficient to simply administer the vaccine at birth, with the intention of immunizing the individual through adulthood.
Although studies have reported the greatest incidence of hepatitis B occurring in adults aged 20 to 39, we have no way of knowing if a hepatitis B vaccine administered at birth will still be effective so many years later.
Although only 17% of physicians report problems such as fever, fatigue, headache and joint pain following receipt of this vaccine, more than 16,000 reports of adverse side effects following vaccination have been reported to the Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System (VAERS). Newborn deaths have been reported following the hepatitis B vaccination, but are nearly always classified as sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS), despite SIDS not being generally recognized in medical literature as occurring in infants under two months of age.
Due to the potential side effects and the fact that infants of healthy mothers are not at high risk of contracting hepatitis B, many parents question the wisdom of this particular vaccine. While there is a hepatitis B vaccine that does not contain thimerosal, a common and worrisome vaccine ingredient, safety studies have included only a few thousand children and monitored them for less than one week following vaccination. No evidence has been provided that the immune and/or neurological system is not compromised by receipt of this vaccine in the following weeks, months or years.
As with any vaccine, the risk of adverse reactions may be diminished by opting to have it administered separately from any other vaccine. Expectant mothers who choose to opt out of the hepatitis B vaccine for their newborns should make their choice known to medical staff prior to delivery; otherwise, it will likely be assumed that the shot is to be given as usual.