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Understanding Immune Globulin's Role in Hepatitis

Nicole Cutler L.Ac. October 14, 2009

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Find out the strengths and weaknesses of immune globulin for preventing viral hepatitis.

A fascinating type of immunization therapy, immune globulins can help lessen disease severity or even prevent a disease from developing. Also known as IGs, immune globulins are collected from the purified blood of hundreds of people and contain various antibodies to a certain pathogen. While immune globulins can successfully avert some chronic diseases, (including two hepatitis viruses), they also have several limitations.

About Immune Globulin

Blood is a complex substance made up of red and white blood cells floating in a protein-rich fluid called plasma. Plasma contains antibodies, which are used by the immune system to identify and neutralize bacteria and viruses, thus protecting against disease. Immune globulins are particularly useful because they can protect someone before or after they have been exposed to a particular disease. However, complacency in disease education and prevention is a potential danger of relying too heavily on immune globulins.

Comparing IG to Vaccine

The main differences between immune globulins and vaccinations are:

  • IG is composed of antibodies from people’s plasma. IG is considered to be a passive solution, because the body of the person receiving it does not react to the IG, but simply circulates it.
  • Vaccines are considered to be an active form of disease protection, because they are actual viral or bacterial components that stimulate the recipient’s immune system to build its own antibodies.
  • A dose of IG supplies the body with antibodies that are ready to immediately start defending against a pathogen.
  • Although IGs begin working immediately, they only provide several months of protection.
  • Since vaccines must wait for the immune system to produce antibodies, they take several weeks to become effective, but typically provide protection for decades.

IG for Hepatitis

Commonly administered to healthcare professionals who suffer from an accidental viral exposure from an infected patient, immune globulins are available for Hepatitis A and Hepatitis B.

  • Hepatitis A – If given within two weeks of exposure to the virus, IG is more than 85 percent effective in preventing infection with the Hepatitis A virus (HAV). For those who don’t have immunity, IG is advised for household and sexual contacts of people with HAV, as well as to travelers visiting foreign countries where Hepatitis A is a known problem or where sanitary conditions are questionable. In addition, those needing protection from HAV include those who are allergic to the vaccine or staff and residents of institutions where an HAV outbreak occurs. However, IG is only effective for approximately three months.
  • Hepatitis B – Hepatitis B immune globulin is given to those who have been exposed to someone (or their blood or bodily fluids) with infectious Hepatitis B. Most commonly, this involves a needle stick or blood splashing accident. IG for Hepatitis B must be administered within two weeks of contact to be effective. Again, IG will only be effective for approximately three months.
  • Hepatitis C – Unfortunately, there is no IG for Hepatitis C. Experts believe that IG with a high titer of Hepatitis C antibodies is ineffective because of this virus’ rapid mutation rate. This unique characteristic of Hepatitis C allows the virus to escape protective antibodies and has made the quest to find a vaccine or cure much more challenging.

Immune globulins are ingenuous ways to prevent a person who has been exposed to certain hepatitis viruses from becoming sick. However, they are not a cure-all. IGs short-life span and inability to protect against Hepatitis C highlight the need to educate everyone about hepatitis and how to prevent viral transmission of chronic liver infection.

References:

http://hepatitis.about.com/od/treatment/a/ImmuneGlobulin.htm, What is Immune Globulin?, Charles Daniel, Retrieved May 17, 2009, About.com, 2009.

http://www.hcvadvocate.org/hcsp/articles/Jensen.html, Needlestick Exposure and Hepatitis C, Nancy Reau, MD, Donald M. Jensen, MD, Retrieved May 17, 2009, Hepatitis C Support Project, 2009.

http://www.liverdisease.com/vaccinations.html, Vaccinations for Liver Disease, Retrieved May 17, 2009, Melissa Palmer, MD, 2009.

http://www.mckinley.uiuc.edu/Handouts/immunoglobulin.html, Immunoglobulin (IG or Immune Globulin or Gamma Globulin), Retrieved May 17, 2009, The Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois, 2009.

http://www.webmd.com/hepatitis/immune-globulin-ig-for-hepatitis-a, Immune Globulin (IG) for Hepatitis A, Retrieved May 17, 2009, WebMD LLC, 2009.

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