Hepatitis defense for babies

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Yampa Valley Medical Center and hospitals across the country are protecting infants from the potentially fatal Hepatitis B virus. Newborn babies at YVMC now receive the "birth dose" of Hepatitis B vaccine.

"We are following the recent recommendation from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) that Hepatitis B vaccine be administered before newborns leave the hospital," YVMC neonatal nurse practitioner Mary Gills said.

Hepatitis B virus (HBV) is a serious health risk, Gills said. It kills more people annually than any other vaccine-preventable disease.

Infants are the most vulnerable population. "An infant who gets HBV can develop chronic hepatitis and liver failure," Gills said. "If an infant lives in a home with someone else who has HBV, the baby is very likely to get ill within the first two months."

Babies younger than 12 months who are infected with HBV have a 90 percent chance of becoming chronically ill. The risk of lifelong complications drops to 45 percent for children who are one year or older and just 10 percent for youngsters 5 years or older.

Most newborns will receive four doses of Hepatitis B vaccine in their first year of life. The birth dose will be administered in the hospital. Other immunizations are scheduled for well-child checkups at 2, 4 and 6 months of age.

"We know that not every parent follows this schedule," YVMC childbirth nurse manager Alethea Gaume said. "Getting one dose at the hospital is better than not getting any immunization."

"National data shows that when education and immunization begin at the hospital, parents are more likely to complete the series of vaccines," Gills added.

Mothers of newborn babies receive education about Hepatitis B from the nursing staff at YVMC. The baby's physician then discusses the vaccination with the family at the hospital. Unless a parent signs a form refusing the immunization, the vaccine is provided during the infant's hospital stay.

"In the past, parents had concerns about the Hepatitis B vaccine because it contained mercury," Gills said. "The mercury was in the preservative called thimerosal. This ingredient has been removed from the vaccine."

Any newborn who is identified as high-risk due to the health of his or her mother receives additional preventive care at YVMC.

"Although HBV is rare in our community among expectant mothers, every pregnant woman who makes prenatal visits to her physician receives a routine test early in her pregnancy," Gaume explained. "If the mother is HBV-positive, the newborn will receive the Hepatitis B vaccine plus immunoglobulin within 12 hours of birth. This also is done if the mother had no prenatal HBV test."

Several national healthcare organizations recommended the birth dose, including the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices, the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Academy of Family Physicians.

"The CDC just strengthened its recommendation and now states that it should be an exception if a baby does not receive the birth dose," Gills said. "The risks and consequences are too high if a baby contracts HBV."

The goal of this immunization program is to save lives and eliminate HBV in the United States by the year 2020, Gaume said.

Christine McKelvie is public relations director of Yampa Valley Medical Center.

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