New vaccine protects adults against Hepatitis B

A new Hepatitis B vaccine — the first in 25 years — comes at a time when cases of the virus are rising, a trend some link to the heroin and drug epidemic.

For the past two decades, there has been a vaccination against the virus for children, but a new vaccine recommended by a federal panel this week is for adults.

“It’s one more weapon in our arsenal,” said Bridget Pfaff, infectious control administrative director at Gundersen Health System. “We’re definitely not in the midst of an outbreak of Hepatitis B, but it certainly is something that could run rampant in our community if we didn’t have people protected.”

Pfaff said the virus, which causes serious liver infection and is spread by blood or other bodily fluids, is more common in high-risk populations such as health care workers, IV drug users and jail inmates.

“Hepatitis is a very serious disease, and we find that many of our inmates do have Hepatitis B, oftentimes through the use of dirty needles while injecting drugs” La Crosse County Sheriff Steve Helgeson said.

Of the about 323 million people in the country, the CDC estimates between 850,000 and 2.2 million live with the disease chronically.

The AIDS Resource Center offers hepatitis testing for La Crosse jail inmates. Helgeson said at one point, nearly half of county inmates who opted to be tested for Hepatitis B had the virus.

“Given that it’s such a serious disease and it’s potentially terminal, it’s frightening how many people are infected in our community,” he said.

Helgeson thinks the vaccinations would be helpful, but worries about the challenges in getting it to inmates.

“The issue, oftentimes of course, is financial,” he said.

Still, Mayo Clinic Health System’s Dr. Ala Dababneh would recommend the vaccine to any adults prone to infected bodily fluid exposure, including paramedics or even world travelers, and wants to be careful not to single out a certain group such as drug users.

“Some populations tend to get blamed for certain things,” he said. “Really, the point of new vaccine is to provide a benefit, and anybody who can be at risk for Hepatitis B should get the vaccine.”

The original Hepatitis B vaccine for kids is given in three doses over six months, but the new vaccine made by Dynavax Technologies Corp. is given in two shots over one month, so health experts hope that will improve vaccination rates and completion among adults.

There are potential side effects of the vaccine, including heart issues, which the company is looking into.

The vaccine is not yet available in the Coulee Region.