Practice Alert

Hepatitis vaccination update

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Immunization rates for hepatitis B are still suboptimal; a new 2-dose vaccine may help turn that around. HepA vaccine is now preferred as post-exposure prophylaxis for adults >40 years.



One of the most important commitments family physicians can undertake in protecting the health of their patients and communities is to ensure that their patients are fully vaccinated. This task is increasingly complicated as new vaccines are approved every year and recommendations change regarding new and established vaccines. To assist primary care providers, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) annually updates 2 immunization schedules—one for children and adolescents, and one for adults. These schedules are available on the CDC Web site (

These updates originate from the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP), which meets 3 times a year to consider and adopt changes to the schedules. During 2018, relatively few new recommendations were adopted. The September 2018 Practice Alert1 in this journal covered the updated recommendations for influenza immunization, which included reinstating live attenuated influenza vaccine (LAIV) to the active list of influenza vaccines.

This current Practice Alert reviews 3 additional updates: 1) a new hepatitis B (HepB) vaccine; 2) updated recommendations for the use of hepatitis A (HepA) vaccine for post-exposure prevention and before travel; and 3) inclusion of the homeless among those who should be routinely vaccinated with HepA vaccine.

Hepatitis B: New 2-dose product

As of 2015, the annual incidence of new hepatitis B cases had declined by 88.5% since the first HepB vaccine was licensed in 1981 and recommendations for its routine use were issued in 1982.2 The HepB vaccine products available in the United States are 2 single-antigen products, Engerix-B (GlaxoSmithKline) and Recombivax HB (Merck & Co.). Both can be used in all age groups, starting at birth, in a 3-dose series. HepB vaccine is also available in 2 combination products: Pediarix, containing HepB, diphtheria and tetanus toxoids, acellular pertussis, and inactivated poliovirus (GlaxoSmithKline), approved for use in children 6 weeks to 6 years old; and Twinrix (GlaxoSmithKline), which contains both HepB and HepA and is approved for use in adults 18 years and older.

Adults who should receive hepatitis B vaccination (if previously unvaccinated)

The HepB vaccine is recommended for all children and unvaccinated adolescents as part of the routine vaccination schedule. It is also recommended for unvaccinated adults with specific risks (TABLE 12). However, the rate of HepB vaccination in adults for whom it is recommended is suboptimal (FIGURE),3 and just a little more than half of adults who start a 3-dose series of HepB complete it.4A new vaccine against hepatitis B, HEPLISAV-B (Dynavax Technologies), was licensed by the US Food and Drug Administration in late 2017. ACIP now recommends it as an option along with other available HepB products. HEPLISAV-B is given in 2 doses separated by 1 month. It is hoped that this shortened 2-dose series will increase the number of adults who achieve full vaccination. In addition, it appears that HEPLISAV-B provides higher levels of protection in some high-risk groups—those with type 2 diabetes or chronic kidney disease.3 However, initial safety studies have shown a small absolute increase in cardiac events after vaccination with HEPLISAV-B. Post-marketing surveillance will be needed to show whether this is causal or coincidental.3

Rates of immunization against hepatitis B in the United States are inadequate

If a HepB series must be completed with different products, just be sure 3 doses are given—even if HEPLISAV-B is one of the agents.

As with other HepB products, use of HEPLISAV-B should follow the latest CDC directives on who to test serologically for prior immunity, and on post-vaccination testing to ensure protective antibody levels were achieved.2 It is best to complete a HepB series with the same product, but, if necessary, a combination of products at different doses can be used to complete the HepB series. Any such combination should include 3 doses, even if one of the doses is HEPLISAV-B.

Hepatitis A: Vaccination assumes greater importance for more people

A Practice Alert in early 2018 described a series of outbreaks of hepatitis A around the country and the high rates of associated hospitalizations.5 These outbreaks have occurred primarily among the homeless and their contacts and those who use illicit drugs. This nationwide outbreak has now spread, resulting in more than 7500 cases since July 1, 2016.6 The progress of this epidemic can be viewed on the CDC Web site ( At its October 2018 meeting, ACIP added homelessness to the list of those (previously unvaccinated) who should receive the HepA vaccine (TABLE 2).6

Individuals who should receive hepatitis A vaccine if not previously vaccinated

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