TUCSON, AZ (Tucson News Now) - Pima County is seeing an increase in hepatitis A cases, climbing to 20 so far for 2019, surpassing annual totals for four of the last five years.
The Pima County Health Department is urging all people at risk, especially those experiencing homelessness and those that are using (or trying to quit using) illegal drugs, to get vaccinated against hepatitis A.
According to the county health department since Nov. 1, 2018 when investigators believe the outbreak began, there have been 34 cases linked to the outbreak, with 27 of those cases resulting in hospitalization.
“As we continue to see cases, we are diligently working to protect the people most vulnerable from becoming infected,” said Deputy County Health Director Paula Mandel, in a recent news release. “We are seeing this outbreak hit users of illicit drugs, those trying to quit illicit drugs, and people experiencing homelessness. We want to get the word out that the safe and effective vaccine and good hand hygiene can help protect you.”
Vaccination clinics have been opened for those most at risk for a hepatitis A infection, via a partnership with the County and various organizations including homeless services providers, community health clinics, substance use treatment providers, hospital emergency departments, jails, and probation facilities. Over the course of this outbreak, vaccination teams have been going into facilities to vaccinate as many people in the high-risk groups as possible.
“We are taking action to get ahead of this; to stop this infectious disease from continuing to spread,” said Dr. Carlos Perez-Velez, Health Department Deputy Chief Medical Officer, in the same release. “With the continued support and cooperation of partners throughout the community, we have been able to provide more and more hepatitis A virus vaccinations to the vulnerable residents at high risk.”
Hepatitis A is a vaccine-preventable infectious disease that can damage the liver. Infected people shed the virus in their stool in high concentrations from two to three weeks before to one week after onset of clinical illness, and thereby spread the virus during this time. They often carry it on poorly washed hands. It spreads to others when they swallow invisible amounts of the virus through food, drink, sexual activity or after touching contaminated objects. While proper hand washing can prevent spread of infection, vaccination provides long-term protection against the virus.
Although the hepatitis A vaccine is routinely given to children as part of the recommended vaccination schedule, most adults have not been vaccinated. Anyone can receive the vaccine but it is especially recommended for people who:
- are experiencing homelessness
- use injection and non-injection illicit drugs
- are traveling to countries where hepatitis A is common
- have been recently incarcerated
- live with, or have sex with, someone who has hepatitis A
- have chronic liver disease, such as cirrhosis, alcoholic liver disease, hepatitis B or hepatitis C
- Men who have sex with men
HAV vaccine is readily available at doctor’s offices, health clinics, and pharmacies. People who cannot pay for vaccinations or who do not have health insurance should contact the Health Department or a community health clinic near them. Places to get vaccinated can be found at www.pima.gov/hep-a
In addition to getting vaccinated, people should:
- Wash their hands with soap and water after going to the bathroom and before eating or making food
- Avoid having sex with anyone who has hepatitis A
- Not share towels, toothbrushes, eating utensils, food, drinks, smokes or drug “works” with others
Hepatitis A symptoms include jaundice, fatigue, stomach pain, nausea and diarrhea. People can be contagious for two weeks before, and one week after, symptoms appear, and unknowingly spread the virus. Rarely, the virus can cause liver failure and death – especially in persons with impaired immune systems or chronic liver disease. A blood test is the most common way to confirm hepatitis A, so people who think they have any of these symptoms should contact their healthcare provider or urgent care center.
For more information about hepatitis A infection and where to get the HAV vaccine, visit www.pima.gov/hep-a or call (520) 724-7797.