Usually, when we think of the power of vaccines to prevent cancer, our minds turn to the HPV vaccine, which has the potential to prevent not just most cases of cervical cancer, but several other kinds of cancer as well.
But with World Cancer Day occurring on Feb. 4, this is also a perfect time to remember another cancer-prevention vaccine: the one against hepatitis B, a virus that puts people at higher risk of liver cancer.
The disease has been in the news because a New Jersey surgical center recently warned 3,000 patients that they might have been exposed to hepatitis B after problems with sterilization at the facility. People often think of hepatitis B vaccine as one they or their children don’t need because there is a higher risk of being exposed among those with multiple sexual partners or who take drugs.
Many parents wonder why the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend the vaccine for newborn babies who could not have engaged in any behaviors that increased their risks.
The reasons are many – and the New Jersey case illustrates one of them. Though certain behaviors increase the risk, the University of Michigan points out that the hepatitis B virus can live on surfaces at room temperature for up to seven days, possibly exposing people who have open wounds.
“This means up to seven days after someone has left blood on something, such as, playground equipment, a water bottle, a school desk, any surface; it can be picked up through an opening in the skin or eyes of another person — a person who isn’t ‘at risk,’ the university’s fact sheet says. “Just because you don’t participate in risky behavior, like having multiple sex partners or injecting IV drugs, doesn’t mean that you can’t catch this disease. Some other people at higher risk are diabetics and health care workers.”
According to the fact sheet, 35 patients of a Rhode Island acupuncturist were infected because of one patient who had the virus. A 4-year-old was infected by another child in preschool who had a history of biting and scratching. Nine percent of the residents of a Mississippi nursing home were infected, and two died, because the nursing home was reusing a finger-stick device to test blood glucose levels.
Hepatitis B is known as the “silent killer” because most people have no idea that they are infected until it is too late to treat.
It’s easy to see how a woman might be infected without realizing it, and, if she’s pregnant, expose her newborn baby to hepatitis B. The good news is that even if that happens, a baby who receives the vaccine at birth and again at 2 months has a 90 percent chance of being healthy, UMich reports.
Worldwide, 400 million people are chronically infected with the virus. So on this World Cancer Day, let’s remember to protect our babies from having a higher risk of liver cancer – as well as our children, our elderly and those who need surgery. Vaccinate is a simple, effective step that we can take to stop the lesser-known of the cancer-related viruses.