Why Do Newborns Get the Hepatitis B Vaccine?

Paul A. Offit, MD, talks about why it’s important to get newborns immunized against the hepatitis B virus. He briefly explains the different ways children can become infected with hepatitis B and the consequences of catching the virus.


Why do newborns get the hepatitis B vaccine?

Paul Offit, MD: Hi, my name's Paul Offit. I’m talking to you today from the Vaccine Education Center. What I thought we could talk about is, why is it that newborns get a hepatitis B virus vaccine? There are a number of reasons. First and probably most important, if a newborn catches hepatitis B virus, and typically catches it from passing through a birth canal, the mother’s birth canal that is contaminated with hepatitis B, they have a 90% chance of going on to develop cirrhosis, which is chronic liver disease, and liver cancer, which obviously is a fatal disease.

The other thing I think most parents don’t realize is that before there was a routine recommendation for hepatitis B vaccine of newborns in 1991, every year about 18,000 children less than 10 years of age would get hepatitis B. Now about half of those children got it from their mothers as they passed through that birth canal that had hepatitis B virus in it. But the other half got it from relatively casual contact. Got it when uncle Bob came, who was a silent carrier of hepatitis B, but didn’t know it, and then kissed the child. Or got it from sharing toothbrushes with somebody who had hepatitis B at summer camp.

So I think that it’s important to know that this is a virus that isn’t just transmitted by passing through an infected birth canal, or by sexual contact, or by tattoos, or by sharing intravenous needles. It also can be transmitted by routes that someone less than 10 can come in contact with.

So, I think since we’ve have that recommendation in 1991, we essentially eliminated this disease in less than 19-year-olds. So I think it’s something to be proud of.

Some parents could argue, “But wait a second, I had a hepatitis B virus test when I was pregnant and didn’t have it. So can’t I just wait to get the vaccine?” The problem with that is, I guess, twofold. One, no test is perfect, and secondly mom could inadvertently acquire hepatitis B after the test was preformed. So there’s no downside to getting the hepatitis B vaccine at birth. Also those who get it at birth, those studies have shown, are much more likely to complete that three-dose series.

Thank you.

Related Centers and Programs: Vaccine Education Center

Last Reviewed on Apr 20, 2015