Fortunately, spreading the virus from a mother to a newborn infant can be prevented by giving the infant a hepatitis B vaccine at birth. The hepatitis B vaccine contains just a copy of a small part of the hepatitis B virus. This small part, which cannot cause the hepatitis B infection, helps a child’s immune system build a defense against the virus. In fact, experts agree that the disease could be eliminated by vaccinating all newborns.
Yet, 1 in 3 newborns in the US leaves the hospital without a vaccination against hepatitis B. As a result, approximately 800 newborns become chronically infected each year because of exposure during birth.
Recently, a nonprofit agency called the Immunization Action Coalition (IAC) has been urging the nation’s birthing institutions to “Give birth to the end of Hep B.” The Coalition is asking all birthing institutions where babies are born to promote this crucial aspect of newborn care and to ensure that all newborns are vaccinated.
All newborns should be vaccinated before leaving the hospital and within 12 hours of birth if the mother has the hepatitis B infection. Later, at properly spaced intervals, 2 or 3 additional doses should be given to the infant in the doctor’s office or clinic. These additional doses help infants develop lifelong immunity to the hepatitis B virus.
One way to ensure the vaccine is given to all newborns is for birthing institutions to make it a “standard of care,” so it is always given before a newborn is discharged. It’s important for mothers to know about this and insist that their babies receive the hepatitis B vaccine. Some doctors may want to give the first dose of the vaccine during the infant’s first office visit, especially if the mother does not test positive for hepatitis B. But this approach is risky. Medical errors can occur, such as ordering the wrong hepatitis screening test for the mother, forgetting to test the mother for hepatitis B, or misinterpreting the test results. Furthermore, many parents prefer to spread out infant vaccinations rather than giving the hepatitis B vaccine along with other vaccines often administered during the first well-baby check-up.
The hepatitis B vaccine for newborns is recommended by many professional organizations and healthcare agencies, including the American Academy of Pediatrics and the CDC. You can find more information about hepatitis B and the IAC initiative on their website (www.immunize.org/protect-newborns/).