Mass. To Require Immunization for Hepatitis B in 1996

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Starting in September 1996, children entering kindergarten in Massachusetts will be required to have vaccinations for the hepatitis B virus.

The move announced last month by state public-health officials will make Massachusetts--already a leader in childhood immunizations--one of only two states to require proof of vaccination against the virus before a child can begin school.

New York State passed a similar law last summer requiring children to receive the shots before they enroll in preschool or day-care centers.

"This policy will act as a kind of gate--the only really effective way to insure that 100 percent of kids are being appropriately protected," said Dr. Susan M. Lett, the director of the division of epidemiology and immunization at the Massachusetts Department of Public Health.

State health officials will distribute the vaccine to private physicians and community health clinics across the state. The vaccine will also be available in most school-based clinics, Dr. Lett said.

Most states have long required children to receive vaccinations for measles, mumps, and rubella before entering school.

In 1991, the federal government urged state and local health officials to help stem the spread of hepatitis B by immunizing young children.

There are an estimated 250,000 new cases of hepatitis B each year in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. One in every 250 people is a carrier of the contagious and sometimes deadly infection.

A blood-borne virus, hepatitis B can be transmitted during childbirth or through sexual activity.

Immunizing Teenagers

Some people infected with the virus experience only flu-like symptoms, while others develop liver cancer and other fatal complications. Each year, 10,000 Americans are hospitalized and more than 6,000 die from it, according to the C.D.C.

Last week, a federal advisory committee to the C.D.C. recommended vaccination of 11- and 12-year-olds who had not been immunized against hepatitis B. Federal health experts believe this can protect teenagers, who are at risk for the virus.

Dr. Lett said Massachusetts health officials are developing strategies to immunize adolescents. But in the long run, she said, the only way to curtail the disease is to begin with children.

"A large proportion of chronic diseases stem from people infected prior to adolescence," Dr. Lett noted. "That's what these strategies will address."

Vol. 14, Issue 10

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