California Faces Largest Outbreak Of Hepatitis A Since 1995

Public health officials in the state of California are battling more than statewide fires. According to the California Department of Public Health, up to 600 people have now been diagnosed with hepatitis A, making the outbreak one of the largest since 1995 when a vaccine was developed.

CNN reports that a total of 395 people have since been hospitalized. Up to 19 people have died from the virus since November 2016. Governor Jerry Brown announced a state of emergency regarding the outbreak on Friday, October 13. The declaration of a state of emergency allows for EMTs to administer vaccines to high-risk individuals such as the homeless and those suffering from substance abuse.

“Vaccinating people at risk of exposure is the most effective tool we have to prevent the spread of hepatitis A infection during an outbreak,” said CDPH director Dr. Karen Smith.

Hepatitis A is a viral liver disease, which can cause the liver to swell over time. Initial symptoms of the virus such as fatigue may resemble a cold. However, while the symptoms of a cold typically only last between 48 hours to 14 days, additional symptoms of hepatitis A can last longer (sometimes up to two months) and may also resemble the stomach flu. Symptoms such as body and muscle aches, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, abdominal pain, and fever are common. However, what sets hepatitis A apart from the other viruses is the yellowing of the eyes and skin.

While community noise is considered detrimental to one’s health (noise levels above 40 decibels are known to increase the risk of heart disease), so is a lack of community involvement. Limited access to clean or unshared food and drinking water puts the homeless at considerable risk of infection of hepatitis A since the virus is easily spread from person to person via contaminated foodstuffs and unsterilized needles.

To combat the spread, the CDPH has reported the distribution of over 80,000 vaccines. “We have what is a pretty unprecedented outbreak, based on the number of cases we have so far,” said Dr. Gil Chávez, the CDPH deputy director for infectious diseases. “Dating back to March, we have been taking this extremely seriously and have been working very closely with officials from the affected counties as well as officials from the CDC.”

Compared to the 20,000 annual deaths caused by lung cancer as a result of radon exposure, there are typically only 3,000 cases of hepatitis A reported every year and only 1% of those cases are considered fatal. It’s those regular numbers that make the outbreak of 600 cases in California so puzzling. Unfortunately, the reason behind the outbreak is still unknown.

Many health researchers believe the reason behind the outbreak in homeless communities is due to unsanitary living situations. However, because the homeless population of California has always been considerably high, a more plausible reason could be due to the increasing numbers in the homeless population over the last few years.

To combat the outbreak, California municipalities have been reaching out to the homeless directly with information on vaccines, making bathrooms more accessible, power washing the streets, and placing mobile hand-washing stations in specific areas. Up to 8,000 sanitation kits have also been delivered. However, despite the gravity of the situation, Chávez said the majority of Californians are at no increased risk of the virus.

“It’s really focused on a specific part of the state, in a very specific community,” Chávez said. “For the general population of the state, there is no increased risk, so people don’t need to worry.”

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