Why Do Newborns Need the Hepatitis B Vaccine?

The first vaccine a baby receives — within hours or days of birth — protects them from hepatitis B virus (HBV). In a lot of people’s minds, HBV is associated with drug use and sexual activity — which stigmatizes people who have been infected with HBV or are carriers of the virus. Unfortunately, this stigma causes a lot of people to question why babies even need to be vaccinated against it, often pointing to “Big Pharma” conspiracy theories. A lot of other people are put off by the misconception that the HBV vaccine is made with human blood (it’s not).


May is Hepatitis Awareness Month, a time to learn about a childhood vaccine that’s saved millions of lives.


There are perfectly good reasons to vaccinate babies against HBV, mainly that HBV is the leading cause of liver cancer, itself one of the Top 10 types of cancer worldwide. Nine out of 10 infants born to a mother who is an HBV carrier will develop chronic infections and become carriers themselves — and a quarter of them will die prematurely of liver disease. Babies who develop chronic HBV infections are 63 times more likely to develop liver cancer than non-carriers, a connection that is 2 to 3 times stronger than the link between smoking and lung cancer.

When it comes to HBV, age at infection matters. Most people with chronic HBV infections are exposed at birth or in early childhood, when they are most likely to develop chronic, lifelong infections — whereas only 2 to 6 percent of infected adults will develop chronic infections, with only 15 percent of them eventually dying from liver disease. The fact that chronic infection risk is inversely correlated with age at infection means that birth is the time when a child is the most vulnerable to this virus — hence the importance of vaccinating as early as possible. Continue reading

Over 90 Percent of What Planned Parenthood Does, Part 6: Vaccinations

Welcome to the latest installment of “Over 90 Percent of What Planned Parenthood Does,” a series on Planned Parenthood Advocates of Arizona’s blog that highlights Planned Parenthood’s diverse array of services — the ones Jon Kyl doesn’t know about.

You know what they say: An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Public health experts agree that vaccines are one of the most important advancements in medicine, and are incredibly safe and effective in preventing infectious disease. Many infectious diseases that used to lay waste to their victims are now unknown to many of us in the developed world — polio, whooping cough, measles, and rabies struck fear in the hearts of our forebears, but most young people today barely know what they are (although low rates of vaccination can still lead to outbreaks, such as 2008’s measles outbreak in Tucson). Smallpox, once a terrifying scourge, has been wiped off the planet thanks to vaccination campaigns.


We offer vaccinations against hepatitis A and B, as well as HPV.


Vaccines work by introducing antigens to your immune system. An antigen is a substance, such as a protein on the surface of a virus, that the immune system can recognize as dangerous. It is then able to attack the pathogen and, often, create a “memory” of that pathogen so it can attack it in the event of reinfection. The antigens in vaccines are very safe, and can be derived from many sources, such as inactivated (dead) or attenuated (weakened) pathogens, or fragments of pathogens. Some vaccines, such as those protecting against human papillomavirus and hepatitis B, are made with laboratory-synthesized fragments of the surface proteins of viruses, which are sufficient to produce immune response despite being completely noninfectious.

Planned Parenthood Arizona offers vaccinations against hepatitis A, hepatitis B, and human papillomavirus (HPV). All three of these viruses can be transmitted sexually, and hepatitis B and HPV can cause cancer if the infections become chronic. The hepatitis vaccines have led to all-time lows in rates of hepatitis A and hepatitis B; the HPV vaccine is still new, but emerging evidence suggests a possible decrease in HPV rates as herd immunity grows. Vaccination doesn’t just benefit you and your partner(s) — it benefits society as a whole. Continue reading

World Hepatitis Day: The History of the Hepatitis B Vaccine

Hepatitis B particles are made of a protein shell with viral DNA inside. Image: CDC

A few hepatitis B virus particles amid an excess of surface proteins. Image: CDC

In the early 1970s, Ted Slavin, a hemophiliac, learned his blood was special. Over a lifetime of transfusions, he had slowly amassed a huge collection of antibodies, which are proteins produced by the immune system that attach to invaders, such as viruses and bacteria. When he started receiving transfusions in the 1950s, blood wasn’t screened for diseases, which meant that he’d been repeatedly exposed to some pathogens. His immune system manufactured large amounts of protective antibodies to battle these constant invaders, one of which was hepatitis B virus (HBV) — resulting in blood with extremely high concentrations of hepatitis B antibodies.


After sunshine and smoking, hepatitis B is the most common cause of cancer.


His physician relayed this discovery to Slavin — most doctors wouldn’t have bothered, and in fact might have surreptitiously sold his blood to researchers. Back then, scientists were at work on a hepatitis B vaccine, and hepatitis B antibodies were a hot commodity. Likewise, Slavin needed money — his medical condition precluded regular work, and treatments were costly. He contracted with labs and pharmaceutical companies to sell his antibodies directly, for as much as $10 per milliliter and up to 500 milliliters per order.

When someone has a chronic HBV infection, the virus has “hijacked” some of his or her cells, “tricking” them into manufacturing copies of the virus. A virus consists of an outer protein shell housing genetic information — the blueprint that cells follow when they produce virus copies. When hepatitis B viruses are manufactured in cells, an excess of surface proteins is produced — these waste products litter the bloodstream, and testing for their presence allows people to be diagnosed with HBV infections. These surface proteins are called antigens — and as luck (or evolution) would have it, the antibodies our immune systems produce can attach to viral antigens, helping us to keep pathogens at bay. Continue reading

STD Awareness: Hepatitis B Virus and the HBV Vaccine

Hepatitis B virions are pictured in this transmission electron micrograph. Image: National Center for HIV/AIDS, Viral Hepatitis, STD, and TB Prevention.

July 28 is World Hepatitis Day. This month’s installment of our STD Awareness series will shine the spotlight on the hepatitis B virus (HBV), which can be transmitted sexually as well as nonsexually.

Hepatitis viruses infect the liver. Hepatitis A, B, and C can be transmitted sexually, and hepatitis B is the most likely to be spread this way. HBV is present in vaginal fluids, semen, and blood. It is highly contagious and can be transmitted by most sexual activities, such as vaginal or anal intercourse, as well as oral sex. HBV can also be spread by exposure to infected blood, and an HBV-infected mother can pass the virus onto her infant during birth.

To protect yourself from HBV, make sure to use latex barriers, such as condoms and dental dams, if you are sexually active. Also, don’t use unsterilized needles; don’t share hygiene items that could have infected blood on them, such as razors and toothbrushes; and consider being vaccinated against hepatitis B. Continue reading