Local and state health officials have been working to curb the hepatitis A outbreak but the virus is still spreading at record pace.
Since 2016, the virus has spread in at least 29 states, sickening some 23,600 people and killing more than 230. The highly contagious virus spreads easily and thrives in unsanitary conditions. It affects the liver and is spread when a person ingests food or drink contaminated by fecal matter of an infected person. It’s also passed on commonly touched objects like doorknobs and equipment like a flu.
The number of cases in Florida continues to climb with 2,814 reported so far this year, 30 of them in Osceola County, according to the Florida Department of Health. The number of statewide cases nearly doubled from 2018 and more than doubled from 2016 to 2017 following years of relative stability.
The Florida Surgeon General declared a “public health emergency” Aug. 1, 2019, and directed all state-run local health departments to step up measures to prevent hep A from spreading, particularly among people who are homeless and people who use drugs – the two populations most vulnerable to the disease.
The Florida Department of Health in Osceola County is currently implementing a High-Risk Group Targeted Vaccination Plan for other high-risk including people in county jails and people at in-patient and outpatient drug rehabilitation centers, said spokeswoman Nathaly A. Matos.
The Community Hope Center in June administered free vaccinations for 30 people through a partnership with the state and other local, community organizations including Community Vision, the Council on Aging and Health Care Center for the Homeless, said Hope Center Executive Director Mary Downey.
Family physicians can administer the vaccine, which is also available at chain store pharmacies such as CVS, Walgreens, Publix and Winn Dixie. Those without health insurance can get free or reduced-cost vaccinations at the Osceola Health Department on Fortune Road in Kissimmee.
Ninety inmates at the Osceola County Jail have opted to get the vaccination along with 106 staff members, said Osceola County Corrections spokeswoman Hope Hicka.
“It is an ongoing effort so we hope to keep increasing those numbers,” she said.
The risk of contracting hep A dropped dramatically after a vaccine was developed in 1995. However, the shots typically are recommended for babies, not adults, leaving them more susceptible to the disease.
There is no cure or specific treatment for hep A, which causes flu like symptoms including nausea, fatigue and joint pain. The body clears the hepatitis A virus on its own, although liver failure and death occur in rare cases, especially in older people and those with other liver diseases. Doctors advise rest, nutrition and fluids as it runs its course.
Despite the emergency, Florida health officials have not advised the general public to get vaccinated. Instead, citing Centers for Disease Control guidelines, they recommend the vaccine for the following populations:
• Any person seeking immunity.
• People with unstable housing or experiencing homelessness.
• Users of recreational drugs, whether injected or not.
• Men who have sexual encounters with other men.
• People with chronic or long-term liver disease, including hepatitis B or hepatitis C.
• People with clotting-factor disorders.
• People over the age of 60 with an underlying medical condition.
• People with direct contact with others who have hepatitis A.
• Travelers to countries where hepatitis A is common.
• Family and caregivers of adoptees from countries where hepatitis A is common.
• All children at age 1 year.
Health experts say outbreaks will stop when vulnerable populations have been effectively vaccinated.
The disease can also be prevented through washing your hands with soap and warm running water for at least 20 seconds after using the bathroom, touching people or public surfaces, changing a diaper, coughing, sneezing, using tobacco, eating or drinking. Alcohol-based hand sanitizers do not kill hep A germs.
Hepatitis A: Frequently Asked Questions
How long does hepatitis A virus survive outside the body?
The hepatitis A virus is able to survive outside the body for months. High temperatures, such as boiling or cooking food or liquids for at least one minute at 185F (85C), kill the virus, although freezing temperatures do not.
If I have had hepatitis A in the past, can I get it again?
No. Once you recover from hepatitis A, you develop antibodies that protect you from the virus for life. An antibody is a substance found in the blood that the body produces in response to a virus. Antibodies protect the body from disease by attaching to the virus and destroying it.
I think I have been exposed to hepatitis A. What should I do?
If you have any questions about potential exposure to hepatitis A, call your health professional or your local or state health department. If you were recently exposed to the hepatitis A virus and have not been vaccinated, you might benefit from an injection of either the hepatitis A vaccine or immune globulin. However, the vaccine or immune globulin are only effective if given within the first two weeks after exposure. A health professional can decide what is best based on your age and overall health.
What is hepatitis?
Hepatitis means inflammation of the liver. When the liver is inflamed or damaged, its function can be affected. Heavy alcohol use, toxins, some medications, and certain medical conditions can cause hepatitis, but a virus often causes hepatitis. In the United States, the most common hepatitis viruses are hepatitis A virus, hepatitis B virus, and hepatitis C virus.
What is the difference between hepatitis A, hepatitis B and hepatitis C?
Hepatitis A, hepatitis B, and hepatitis C are liver infections caused by three different viruses. Although each can cause similar symptoms, they have different modes of transmission and can affect the liver differently. Hepatitis A is usually a short-term infection and does not become chronic. Hepatitis B and hepatitis C can also begin as short-term, acute infections, but in some people, the virus remains in the body, resulting in chronic disease and long-term liver problems. There are vaccines to prevent hepatitis A and hepatitis B; however, there is no vaccine for hepatitis C.
What is postexposure prophylaxis (PEP)?
Postexposure prophylaxis (PEP) refers to trying to prevent or treat a disease after an exposure.
For hepatitis A, postexposure prophylaxis is an injection of either hepatitis A vaccine or immune globulin.
However, the vaccine or immune globulin are only effective in preventing hepatitis A if given within the first 2 weeks after exposure.
Source: Centers for Disease Control