To help those struggling with substance use disorders and enhance public health prevention efforts, the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services is focusing efforts to reach patients at risk for hepatitis A in the state-operated Alcohol and Drug Abuse Treatment Centers.
Hepatitis A is a vaccine-preventable viral infection, and those at highest risk include people who use injection or non-injection drugs, individuals experiencing homelessness and men who have sex with men. The virus is also spread through ingestion of or contact with an object contaminated with stool from an infected person, contaminated food or water that was prepared by an infected person or not cooked thoroughly, personal contact, and sexual contact.
The department’s Division of Public Health and Division of State-Operated Healthcare Facilities have prioritized increased awareness of the hepatitis A outbreaks occurring in North Carolina and nationally and to increase vaccination for people with a high risk for infection.
“Our divisions have worked together to implement a progressive and innovative response to hepatitis A, with the primary goal to vaccinate high-risk populations when providing clinical care,” said Dr. Carrie Brown, DHHS Chief Medical Officer for Behavioral Health and Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities. “Response activities have included increased health care awareness within state facilities and proactive efforts to vaccinate patients at risk for hepatitis A. We will continue these strategies since they are the most effective tool to prevent the spread, especially during an outbreak.”
Communicable diseases like hepatitis A impact more vulnerable patients, such as those served at the Julian F. Keith, R.J. Blackley and Walter B. Jones treatment centers, so DHHS is leveraging this infrastructure to address these public health concerns with vaccines. Facility participation in the N.C. Immunization Program is made possible by an agreement with the Division of Public Health and the state provides vaccines at no cost.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that more than 17,000 cases of hepatitis A have been identified nationwide since 2016 and at least 170 deaths have resulted from infection. An increase in the spread of cases through person-to-person contact was first noted in North Carolina in 2018. Since then, 76 cases had been linked to the infection in 21 counties statewide, with 72 percent of those infected requiring hospitalization.
“The best way to prevent hepatitis A is through vaccination,” said State Epidemiologist Zack Moore, M.D. “We’ve seen how devastating these outbreaks have been in other states, and North Carolina has the unique opportunity to prevent a large-scale outbreak here by reaching those who are at the highest risk for hepatitis A.”
Vaccination programs, such as the one implemented in the state-operated facilities, are highly effective and have the potential to reach large populations of North Carolinians who are at risk of infection. Since hepatitis A vaccine was not recommended as a routine childhood vaccine in all states until after 2005, many adults, including those at high risk due to drug use, are not vaccinated. Many of these susceptible individuals present to health care facilities to seek treatment for alcohol or drug use disorder.
North Carolina state agencies continue to collaborate to combat public health concerns impacting residents. For more information about the Division of Public Health visit https://publichealth.nc.gov, and to learn more about State Operated Healthcare Facility treatment centers visit https://www.ncdhhs.gov/divisions/dsohf.