The North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services is urging people to get vaccinated against hepatitis A. The department is reporting a sharp increase in the virus associated with an ongoing outbreak that began in April 2018.
Of the 423 cases related to the outbreak, 270 have been reported since January 2020. The department has confirmed four deaths so far in 2020 associated with the outbreak, increasing the total to five. To protect the privacy of the families, additional details about these cases will not be released.
NCDHHS recommends getting vaccinated against hepatitis A, especially for people who are at high risk of contracting the virus. People at highest risk during this outbreak include those who are experiencing homelessness, men who have sex with men and those who use drugs.
"Getting vaccinated is the best way to protect yourself against hepatitis A," said Dr. Erica Wilson, medical director for vaccine preventable diseases in the NCDHHS Division of Public Health. "One dose of vaccine is highly effective, and a second dose gives lifelong immunity. We also urge everyone to continue to practice good hand hygiene and safer sex practices. Drug use also increases risk of infection, and individuals who continue to use drugs should practice harm reduction strategies and get vaccinated."
Hepatitis A vaccine is available for free at all local health departments for people at high risk. Individuals seeking the vaccine are encouraged to contact their health department, health care provider or the NCDHHS viral hepatitis program to be linked to care assistance.
Hepatitis A is a contagious, vaccine-preventable liver infection that can range from a mild illness lasting a few weeks to severe illness lasting several months. Because hepatitis A causes inflammation of the liver, anyone with underlying liver disease is at risk of more serious illness if infected.
The virus is usually transmitted through food or water that has been contaminated with undetectable amounts of feces from a contagious person, such as when food is prepared with unwashed hands. Hepatitis A virus can be spread through sexual contact or non-sexual contact, and transmission through shared injection supplies is possible, though believed to be uncommon.
Anyone experiencing symptoms of hepatitis A should contact their health care provider and refrain from preparing food for others. Symptoms include fever, fatigue, nausea, loss of appetite and stomach pain. Jaundice (yellowing of the skin and/or eyes), dark-colored urine and clay-colored bowel movements may also occur. Symptoms can appear 15-50 days (average 28 days) following infection with the virus.