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Your family's well-being

The Hep B Vaccine

Does your child really need it?

To vaccinate or not to vaccinate? This question has assumed new urgency for some parents since the advent of the hepatitis B vaccine. The vaccine has come under attack by some health organizations and parents who feel it is unnecessary, and in rare cases, even harmful.

The concerns stem from the fact that, unlike the other diseases for which shots have been developed, hepatitis B is not highly contagious or all that common among children. An adult disease, it is most frequently transmitted through infected body fluids such as blood, and is most prevalent within high-risk, drug-using populations and in sexually promiscuous adults. Additionally, once diagnosed, the disease is rarely a killer.

Barbara Loe Fisher, president of the National Vaccine Information Center, is particularly worried because she believes the hepatitis B vaccine was licensed by the Food and Drug Administration without adequate proof of its long-term safety. While short-term studies were conducted, scientific research published by credible groups such as the Institute of Medicine, National Academy of Scientists has concluded that the "lack of adequate data" on the shot's possible damage to children later in their lives is a matter for concern.

Opponents point to medical journals that have suggested a strong link between the hepatitis B shot and diseases such as juvenile diabetes. Dr. Burton Waisbren, a cell biologist and infectious disease specialist in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, raises the question "Since the hepatitis B virus itself has been reported to cause autoimmune problems, should we not be wary of giving antigens that seem to have triggered these problems?" In other words, he thinks the shots might be causing the same problems that the disease itself causes.

Despite these voices of alarm, highly respected groups such as the Centers for Disease Control and the American Academy of Pediatrics have weighed in on the side of the vaccine. Parents are strongly encouraged to start the series of shots before they check their newborn out of the hospital. Merck & Co., marketers of the vaccine, claim in their brochures that the immunization is safe, with relatively mild side effects like fevers or headaches. They maintain that the benefits outweigh the risks.

Ultimately, parents are a child's first line of defense, and no mom or dad has to be in the dark when making a decision about a shot. If you're concerned about this vaccine, here are a few key questions to ask your pediatrician: What do you know about the history of the hepatitis B vaccine? Does my child have any reaction risk factors? Have I been given full information about this vaccine? Why was this disease targeted to begin with?

Since the hepatitis B vaccine is required for school registration, parents often feel they have no choice but to have their child vaccinated. If you opt to forgo the hepatitis B vaccine, ask your child's school to provide you with a waiver form that allows your child to register for school without the shot.

If you'd like more information on the hepatitis B vaccine the American Academy of Pediatrics web site (www.aap.org) is a good place to learn about the benefits of the shot. You can also write the Public Health Service Centers for Disease Control, Atlanta, Georgia 30333. To learn more about the criticisms leveled at the vaccine, contact the National Vaccine Information Center at 512 W. Maple Avenue, Suite 206, Vienna, Virginia 22180. You can e-mail them atinfo@909shot.com or call (800) 909-shot.

?Ginny Nieuwsma
Writer and mother

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