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What Do I Do if I’m a Hepatitis B Vaccine Non-Responder?

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Approximately 5-10% of people do not develop protective antibodies following the completion of the hepatitis B vaccine series.  This is confirmed with a blood test called an anti-HBs titer test which is given 4 weeks following the completion of the series. If the test shows the titer is less then 10 mIU/mL the general recommendation is to complete the series again using a different brand of vaccine (e.g. if you received Engerix B, the first time, switch to Recombivax the 2nd time or vice-versa).  A person is considered to be a “non-responder” if they have completed 2 full vaccination series’ without producing adequate protective antibodies.

Another vaccine option is the new two-dose hepatitis B vaccine, HEPLISAV-BTM. The new vaccine is expected to increase immunization rates for adults in the United States and is administered over a one-month period. The vaccine provides greater seroprotection, which can mean a greater antibody response especially in adults who may be older, obese or live with type 2 diabetes making it an effective vaccine option.

It is also possible that a person who does not respond to the vaccine may already be infected with hepatitis B. Therefore, testing for the presence of the hepatitis B virus (hepatitis B surface antigen or HBsAg) is recommended before diagnosing a person as a “vaccine non-responder.”

CDC Recommendations for Hepatitis B Vaccine Non-Responders

  • Persons who do not respond to the primary hepatitis B vaccine series (i.e., anti-HBs <10 mIU/mL) should complete a second 3-dose vaccine series or be evaluated to determine if they are HBsAg-positive. Persons who do not respond to an initial 3-dose vaccine series have a 30%–50% chance of responding to a second 3-dose series.
  • Revaccinated persons should be retested at the completion of the second vaccine series, 1-2 months following the last shot of the series.
  • Persons exposed to HBsAg-positive blood or body fluids who are known not to have responded to a primary vaccine series should receive a single dose of hepatitis B immunoglobulin (HBIG) and restart the hepatitis B vaccine series with the first dose of the hepatitis B vaccine as soon as possible after exposure. Alternatively, they should receive two doses of HBIG, one dose as soon as possible after exposure, and the second dose 1 month later.
  • The option of administering one dose of HBIG and restarting the vaccine series is preferred for non-responders who did not complete a second 3-dose vaccine series.
  • For persons who previously completed a second vaccine series but failed to respond, two doses of HBIG are preferred.

Hepatitis B vaccine “non-responders” who test negative for hepatitis B infection are at risk for being infected and should be counseled regarding how to prevent a hepatitis B infection and to seek immediate medical care to receive a dose of hepatitis B immunoglobulin (HBIG) if they have been exposed to potentially infected blood.

“Non-responders” who test negative for hepatitis B infection as well as friends and family members should practice ways to prevent the spread of hepatitis B, including washing hands, using condoms during sex, avoid direct contact with blood and bodily fluids, and more.

Hepatitis B vaccine “non-responders” to vaccination who test positive for hepatitis B infection should be counseled regarding how to prevent transmitting the hepatitis B virus to others and the need for regular medical care and monitoring for their chronic infection.

In the case of possible exposures to HBV infected blood or body fluids, it is recommended that non-responders receive 2 doses of hepatitis B immunoglobulin (HBIG) – the first dose should be given within 24 hours of the exposure, and the second dose should be given 1 month later.  The CDC has recommendations online for what to do in case a susceptible person is possibly exposed to the hepatitis B virus.

Check out our previous post on the topic here.

References:

CDC Guidance for Evaluating Health-Care Personnel for Hepatitis B Virus Protection and for Administering Postexposure Management. Retrieved from: https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/preview/mmwrhtml/rr6210a1.htm

HEPLISAV-B. Retrieved from: https://heplisavb.com/

If Hepatitis B Is Sexually Transmitted, How Come My Partner Isn’t Infected?

Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici at FreeDigitalPhotos.net.
Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici at FreeDigitalPhotos.net.

By Christine Kukka

I thought hepatitis B was sexually transmitted? I just tested positive, but my partner tested negative, we’ve been together for years, what gives?

This question is a common one. Hepatitis B is indeed easily transmitted sexually, so why do some people — who were not vaccinated — never get hepatitis B from their sexual partners?

It comes down to variables, such as the type of sexual activity you engage in, the viral load (HBV DNA) of the infected partner, and who is on the receiving end of infectious body fluids, especially blood that contains the most virus and semen.

Having one partner infected, and other not, can add more stress to an already traumatic hepatitis B diagnosis. “It was very confusing and made me question how was it possible I was the only one infected,” said a woman who tested positive while her husband tested negative.  “I thought it was possibly a mistake, maybe I was a biological anomaly, which of course I was not.”

Let’s look at the factors that affect who gets infected and who doesn’t when two people have sex.

Viral load: Semen, vaginal fluids and blood all contain the hepatitis B virus (HBV), and the higher the viral load, the more infectious one’s blood and body fluids are. However, having an undetectable viral load doesn’t mean you won’t infected someone during unsafe sex. Even if a man has an undetectable viral load, studies show his semen still contains some HBV and can spread infection, though the risk is lower.

So the rule here is if a man tests positive for the hepatitis B surface antigen (HBsAg), he must consider himself infectious.

The role of gender: In heterosexual relationships, uninfected women are at higher risk of getting infected by a male partner infected with hepatitis B, than the reverse. Women are on the receiving end of semen, which greatly increases their risk of becoming infected unless a condom is used.

Image courtesy of renjith krishnan at FreeDigitalPhotos.net.
Image courtesy of renjith krishnan at FreeDigitalPhotos.net.

When a woman is infected with hepatitis B, an uninfected man is at risk through direct contact with her vaginal secretions, but that contact is lower-risk than a woman’s direct exposure to infectious semen during intercourse.

However, an infected woman who is menstruating is more likely to spread hepatitis B because blood can contain higher levels of HBV than vaginal secretions. That is why gloves and dental dams are recommended to provide a barrier against exposure.

The type of sexual activity: Certain sexual activities are far more efficient at spreading hepatitis B than others. Oral sex appears to have a lower rate of hepatitis B transmission than vaginal sex. Anal sex carries a very high risk of transmission because of tears in the skin that can occur during penetration improves transmission of HBV.

Fingering carries a lesser risk, unless the infected woman is menstruating or a person has bruises or cuts on their hands that allow entry to hepatitis B in semen or vaginal fluids, then gloves are recommended.

The “uninfected” partner could already have been infected and cleared hepatitis B: When a person is first diagnosed with hepatitis B, doctors often test his or her partner for only the hepatitis B surface antigen (HBsAg), which indicates a current hepatitis B infection. If they are negative for HBsAg, they are immediately vaccinated.

If the partner isn’t also tested for the hepatitis B surface antibody (anti-HBs or HBsAb), then no one knows if  the individual was infected years ago (or earlier in the relationship) with hepatitis B and cleared the acute infection.

Hepatitis B is not called the “silent” infection for nothing — many people who get hepatitis B never have any symptoms and never realize they were infected. As a result, a wife, husband, partner or lover who tested negative for HBsAg, may actually have been infected in the past and cleared the infection and now has protective hepatitis B surface antibodies to forever safeguard them from infection. If they’re immediately vaccinated and retested after the three-dose vaccination, they will test positive for surface antibodies, without ever knowing that their antibodies resulted from a past infection, not immunization.

Bottom line, if one of you have been diagnosed and the other is not infected, it is unusual but not uncommon. Get tested and immediately vaccinated if the uninfected partner tests negative for the hepatitis B surface antibody.

Take a quiz to find out how much you know about hepatitis B transmission: click here.

What Stands Between Your Family and a Deadly Disease? Safe and Effective Immunizations

Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici at FreeDigitalPhotos.net.
Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici at FreeDigitalPhotos.net.

By Christine Kukka

Are you dreading taking your kids for their back-to-school vaccinations or wondering if vaccines do more harm than good? Let me tell you about my neighborhood.

Three years ago, a neighbor’s children came down with whooping cough (pertussis). It turns out, the parents didn’t believe in vaccinating their kids. All three children were infected as was their elderly grandmother and two other children down the street.

This family’s refusal to get vaccinated against this highly-infectious respiratory disease threatened the health of the neighborhood. Two doors away, a family had a new baby and the infant’s brother played with the infected children. Babies can’t be vaccinated against pertussis until they’re six months old.

Half of all babies who contract pertussis are hospitalized because they can’t clear the heavy mucus from their lungs. Of those hospitalized, 23 percent get pneumonia and 1 percent die.  Before the pertussis vaccine became available, about 9,000 children died from the infection every year. Luckily, the baby wasn’t infected in this micro-epidemic.

Here’s another example why vaccines are worth the discomfort of a shot. My daughter, born in China, didn’t have access to immunizations, including the birth dose of the hepatitis B vaccine. As a result, she is chronically infected with hepatitis B. Had she been born in a country that immunizes children, she wouldn’t face the 15 to 25 percent risk of dying from liver disease that she faces today.

Immunizations are safe and effective, and they protect our families and our communities, which is why every child should be immunized before they start school this fall. So why doesn’t everyone protect their children?

Image courtesy of arztsamui at FreeDigitalPhotos.net.
Image courtesy of arztsamui at FreeDigitalPhotos.net.

Scientist and astrophysicist Neal deGrasse Tyson has a theory about why some people don’t believe science—even when it’s confirmed by objective, clinical data. Examples include conservatives who disavow global warming and, Tyson pointed out, college-educated Americans who don’t vaccinate their children.

In the U.S., it is college-educated parents who make up a large percentage of people who opt out of vaccination. Despite clear, scientific evidence, they believe vaccines pose a higher risk to their children than the diseases they prevent. These parents assume that because so many others immunize their children, these diseases have “gone away” and they don’t have to. It’s a dangerous and arrogant assumption.

Reliance on this “herd immunity” approach, which banks on enough people being immunized so the overall disease risk remains low, doesn’t work. Infectious diseases really never go away, and they come back with a vengeance when a growing number of community members stop vaccinating their children.

The pertussis strain that infected the U.S. and my neighborhood two years ago was a particularly bad one. Researchers believe the vaccine wasn’t 100 percent able to prevent that strain. Viruses mutate and things like this happen. But when it does, having a sizeable portion of a community not immunized acts as an accelerant to an epidemic.

There are already children and adults in every community who can’t be vaccinated (even when they want to be) because of health problems, or they have weak immune systems that do not respond well to immunization, such as the elderly. Herd immunity helps these people with weak immune systems, but it loses its effectiveness when a growing number of people opt out of immunizations and endanger public health.

There is real science confirming the safety and value of immunizations:

  • Before the measles vaccine became available, there were 500,000 measles cases every year in the U.S. and 500 deaths. By 2000, the country had eradicated the infection.  However, in 2014 as more parents opted out of immunizations, the country experienced 667 measles cases in 27 states including an outbreak at Disneyland. Most who caught measles were not immunized.
  • Now let’s look at hepatitis B. According to the CDC, new cases of the deadly liver infection hepatitis B have declined 82 percent since 1991, when universal childhood immunizations became available. Before that, an estimated one in 20 Americans got hepatitis B.

Immunizations have been the medical miracle of the last century. Millions of lives have been saved. In observation of National Immunization Awareness Month this August, make sure your school- or college-bound children are up-to-date with their immunizations. And while you’re at it, check your own immunization record. No one is immune.

Four Things Fathers Affected by Hepatitis B Can Do for Themselves and Their Families

Image courtesy of photostock at FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Image courtesy of photostock at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Father’s Day, June 21, is a day to celebrate the contributions men make in their children’s lives. It’s also a good day for fathers to acknowledge how valuable they are to their families and how important it is to take care of their health.

Living with chronic hepatitis B can be challenging. Here are some things dads can do to take care of themselves or family members infected with hepatitis B.

1. Get outside and soak in some sunlight and some vitamin D. People with hepatitis B who have vitamin D deficiencies have higher rates of liver damage, cirrhosis and cancer. A healthy diet provides vitamin D, but 80 percent of our vitamin D comes from 15 minutes of exposure to sunlight two to three times a week. So get outside and walk, garden, exercise and soak in some healthy sunlight.

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