Why You Need the Hepatitis A Vaccine

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Hepatitis A is a disease that affects about 32,000 people every year in the United States and about 1.4 million people worldwide. It's unfortunate that so many have to suffer through this disease because hepatitis A is completely preventable. If everyone washed their hands regularly and had access to a clean water supply, people would greatly lower their risk of infection and hepatitis A would be a very rare disease.

However, we do have something that can completely prevent hepatitis A: the hepatitis A vaccine. Through vaccination, you can prevent infection from the beginning.

What Is Hepatitis A Vaccine?

Hepatitis A vaccine is a safe and effective preparation that "tricks" your immune system into building a powerful, natural defense against hepatitis A viruses. The vaccine does this by using inactivated hepatitis A viruses that generate an immune response in the body. The "trick" is that your body doesn't realize the difference between inactive viruses and live viruses. Your body will "rev" up it's immune system like a powerful engine and start producing antibodies against the inactivated viruses. These antibodies will start looking out for any hepatitis A virus that might enter your body in the future and will be ready and waiting to alert the immune system if any are detected.

There are two very similar hepatitis A vaccines available for people in the United States: HAVRIX and VAQTA.

Both are available for anyone one year of age or older and require two doses. You need one dose to "prime" your body and, between six andt 12 months, you need a second dose that will provide the actual immunity to hepatitis A. There is another vaccine, TWINRIX, but it is a combination vaccine that protects against hepatitis A and hepatitis B.

It requires three doses and is only approved for people 18 years of age and older. All hepatitis A vaccines offer immunity that will last up to 25 years for those who are immunized as adults and between 14-20 years for those immunized as children.

Should You Be Vaccinated?

Most people will benefit from being vaccinated. However, people who are at increased risk of hepatitis A infection are strongly encouraged to be vaccinated.

Current recommendations by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are:

  • All children who are 1 year old.
  • People who travel to a country that has a high rate of hepatitis A infection.
  • Men who have sexual contact with other men.
  • People who use illegal drugs.
  • People who have chronic liver disease, including hepatitis B or hepatitis C.
  • People who are treated with clotting-factor concentrates.
  • People who work with animals infected with hepatitis A.
  • People who work in a hepatitis A research laboratory.
  • Anyone who would like to become immune

For more information, read Seven Reasons to Get the Hepatitis A Vaccine.

Some people should not be vaccinated for hepatitis A. These include infants who are less than one year old and people who have ever had a serious allergic reaction to the hepatitis A vaccine. Also, although it's safe, it's probably unnecessary for anyone who has ever had hepatitis A to get the hepatitis A vaccine because once you've had hepatitis A, you should be immune. However, you need to be certain you've had hepatitis A. Sometimes people confuse one type of viral hepatitis with another or misunderstand a test result they once received. You should talk with your doctor to be certain.

Is This Vaccine Safe?

Yes. The hepatitis A vaccine is considered to be very safe and has been given millions of times. The most common side effect is soreness around the area of the injection and serious side effects are extremely uncommon. Because it uses inactivated viruses, hepatitis A vaccine can't cause an infection and is considered safe for pregnant woman and people who have compromised immune systems (for example, someone infected with HIV).

People who worry that vaccines cause other health problems, such as autism and mercury exposure, should know that hepatitis A vaccine does not contain Thimerosal (the chemical preservative that is hypothesized by some lay advocates to be linked to autism) and hasn't been linked to any medical problems other than rare allergic reaction.

What Is IG?

Immune globulin, also called IG, is a type of immunization therapy that uses antibodies instead of viruses. This type of immunity is called passive immunity because it offers protection without your body having to do anything. In cases of known exposure or high-risk travel before the entire vaccine can be given, the best protection for some people may be to get both immune globulin and hepatitis A vaccine. Others should get only one or the other. Talk to your health care provider to see if you fit these circumstances.

Where Can I Be Vaccinated for Hepatitis A?

Any medical provider can vaccinate your for hepatitis A. However, this is probably easier to do in a public health or primary medicine clinic. City or county health departments usually offer vaccination clinics that may be free or require only a small charge.

Sources:

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. June 23, 2008. Hepatitis A.

Pickering, LK (ed), The Red Book: Report of the Committee on Infectious Diseases, 26th e. American Academy of Pediatrics, 2003. 311-318.

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