On Sept. 1, the San Diego County public health officer declared a local public health emergency due to the ongoing hepatitis A virus outbreak in the county. While most people are not at risk for contracting hepatitis A, it’s important to understand how the virus is spread and how you can protect yourself.
What is hepatitis A?
Hepatitis A is a highly contagious liver infection caused by the hepatitis A virus. It can range in severity from a mild illness lasting a few weeks to a severe illness lasting several months. Sometimes hepatitis A can cause liver failure and death, although this is rare and occurs more commonly in people older than 50 and people with other liver diseases.
What are the symptoms of hepatitis A?
Symptoms of hepatitis A include jaundice (yellowing of the skin and eyes), fever, fatigue, loss of appetite, nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, dark urine and light-colored stools. Most people who get hepatitis A feel sick for several months, but they usually recover completely and do not have lasting liver damage.
What is the best way to prevent the disease?
Receiving the hepatitis A vaccine is the best way to prevent the disease. Due to the fecal-oral route of viral transmission, hepatitis A can be prevented through the careful practice of standard precautions:
- Wash your hands for 20 seconds (about the length of time to sing “Happy Birthday” twice) with soap and running water before eating and after eating, and after using the restroom or changing a diaper.
- Never handle personal devices such as cell phones while eating as cell phones are known to carry harmful pathogens such as hepatitis A.
- Do not directly touch the door handle when exiting a public restroom.
- Do not share food, drinks or smoking materials with other people.
Who is at risk for contracting hepatitis A?
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention notes that person-to-person transmission through close contact is the primary way people get hepatitis A in the United States. The majority of people who have contracted hepatitis A in San Diego are homeless and/or illicit drug users, although some cases have been neither.
The virus is being spread person-to-person and through contact with a fecal-contaminated environment. No common sources of food, beverage or drugs have been identified as contributing to the San Diego outbreak, though an investigation is ongoing.
Who should get the hepatitis A vaccine?
The hepatitis A vaccine is strongly recommended for unvaccinated health care workers caring for hepatitis A patients or individuals at risk for hepatitis A. The vaccine should be available and encouraged for other unvaccinated health care personnel concerned about increased exposure to hepatitis A.
The San Diego County public health officer also recommends the vaccine for those who work in food handling, public safety, sanitation and homeless shelters. The county also suggests vaccination for anyone in the general population who has chronic liver disease, other at-risk people who are not already immunized, and any individual who desires immunity to hepatitis A.
Where can I get more information?
If you have questions about the disease or receiving the vaccine, please contact your primary care doctor.
To learn more about hepatitis A, visit the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. You can also visit the HHSA hepatitis website where data is updated routinely. A hepatitis A fact sheet is also available.