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Babies’ first immunizations protect against hepatitis B

Hepatitis B is a liver infection caused by the hepatitis B virus.
Hepatitis B is a liver infection caused by the hepatitis B virus. A baby’s first immunization, which protects against hepatitis B, is recommended shortly after birth and often called “the birth dose.” (iStock photo)

Minnesota Department of Health

Vaccination is one of the greatest public-health achievements of the 20th century.

There are vaccines that can help protect children from 14 serious diseases before age 2. Before vaccines, these diseases made children extremely sick and could lead to long-term health problems and death. Vaccines given on time, every time, protect babies and help them grow up healthy.

Expecting and new parents probably are prepared for the well-child checkups at their pediatrician’s office, where their baby will get these immunizations. But many parents are surprised that their baby’s first immunization actually is recommended to be given in the hospital shortly after birth. This first immunization protects against hepatitis B; it’s often called “the birth dose.”

Hepatitis B is a liver infection caused by the hepatitis B virus. It is spread by blood, semen or other infected body fluids and can be passed from a mom to her baby during birth.

Parents often will wonder why the hepatitis B vaccine is given shortly after birth. Why not wait at least until the baby’s two-month checkup? Why not wait until the child is older? Well, it’s because we want to protect the baby at the earliest possible moment. Here are some facts to consider:

  • Infants are at highest risk of suffering the devastating effects of chronic hepatitis B. For every 10 babies infected with hepatitis B virus, as many as nine will develop a chronic infection that can lead to liver cirrhosis (scarring) or liver cancer. Yes, hepatitis B vaccination also prevents cancer.
  • The hepatitis B virus is extremely infectious — much more than HIV or hepatitis C. Getting vaccinated after birth protects your baby immediately.
  • The hepatitis B vaccination is a safety net for children who may be at risk. Most people who have hepatitis B don’t have symptoms, but they can still pass it to others. This means we may not know whether a family member, child care provider or playmate is infected.
  • The vaccine is safe to be given after birth. No serious side effects are known to be caused by the hepatitis B vaccine. Your baby’s immune system is plenty developed to handle this shot before he or she heads home from the hospital.

Before vaccines, almost 16,000 children younger than age 10 developed hepatitis B infection each year, and this doesn’t include the 6,000 infants who got infected every year from their mothers. Vaccination starting shortly after birth has greatly reduced these numbers in the past 2½ decades. The hepatitis B vaccine is a safe, powerful tool to protect the future of our children.

Learn more about hepatitis B on the CDC website or talk to your health care provider.