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Hepatitis-A Health Alert: What You Need to Know

The Florida Surgeon General has declared a public health emergency in response to the state’s rising cases of Hepatitis A, a vaccine-preventable, communicable disease of the liver.

Hepatitis A cases in Florida have increased sharply in 2019, with this year’s 2,034 cases nearly four times the 548 cases reported in all of 2018, says the Florida Health Department [1].

In 2014, there were just 106 cases in the state, according to the state’s health data. Over the last reporting period of seven days, July 20-27, there were 56 new cases of Hepatitis A statewide, officials said.

“I am declaring this Public Health Emergency as a proactive step to appropriately alert the public to this serious illness and prevent further spread of Hepatitis A in our state,” Florida Surgeon General Dr. Scott Rivkees stated. “The best way to prevent hepatitis A is through vaccination. It is important that we vaccinate as many high-risk individuals as possible in order to achieve herd immunity.”

The most affected counties are Brevard, Citrus, Glades, Hernando, Hillsborough, Lake, Liberty, Manatee, Marion, Martin, Okeechobee, Orange, Pasco, Pinellas, Sumter, Taylor, and Volusia. Most of that area is in Central and Western Florida. There has been a combined total of more than 100 cases reported in Palm Beach, Martin, St. Lucie, Okeechobee and Indian River counties.

Hepatitis A is usually spread person-to-person or through the consumption of contaminated food or water. Getting vaccinated and frequent hand-washing are the best ways of protecting yourself, doctors and public health officials say. Talk to your health care provider or call your county health department [2] about the vaccine.

Most adults with hepatitis A have symptoms that include fatigue, low appetite, stomach pain, nausea, and jaundice, that usually resolve within two months of infection. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention [3] (CDC) recommends unvaccinated people who have been exposed within two weeks to get the vaccine, or a shot of immune globulin, to prevent severe complications.

“There is no way to reliably protect yourself from Hepatitis A – eat at the wrong restaurant at the wrong time and you can contract it,” cautions gastroenterologist Seth Rosen, M.D. [4] “Because of this, all individuals should be vaccinated unless they demonstrate through a blood test that they are immune from previous exposure. Hepatitis A vaccination is now given to all children as part of their vaccination protocol and I recommend it to all my adult patients.”

Most people who contract hepatitis A feel are sick for several weeks, but they usually recover completely and do not have lasting liver damage. In rare cases, hepatitis A can cause liver failure and death; this is more common in people older than 50 and in people with other liver diseases, according to the CDC.

“It is also good vaccine to have if you’re traveling often and if you’re traveling to an area that’s known to have hepatitis A infections,” says Deepa Sharma, D.O. [5], a family medicine physician with Baptist Health Primary Care [6].

How is Hepatitis A Spread?
Hepatitis A is normally spread when a person unknowingly ingests the virus from objects, food, or drinks contaminated by small, undetected amounts of stool from an infected person, states the CDC. Hep A can also spread from close personal contact with an infected person, such as through sex or caring for someone who is ill, says the CDC.

Vaccine and Handwashing
Talk to your healthcare provider or call your county health department about the Hepatitis A vaccine. The Florida Health Department emphasizes that alcohol-based hand sanitizers do not kill hepatitis A germs. Use soap and warm, running water and wash your hands for at least 20 seconds.

Health officials also are reminding people to washing their hands after using the bathroom; touching others or touching public surfaces; changing a diaper; coughing, sneezing or using a tissue; using tobacco; and eating or drinking.

Who is At Risk for Hepatitis A?
Although anyone can get hepatitis A, certain groups of people are at higher risk, according to the CDC, such as:

Common Symptoms
A person can have hepatitis A for up two weeks without feeling sick, says the Florida Health Department. But during that time, they can spread the virus to others. Symptoms usually start two to six weeks after infection and last less than two months. They include: