The hepatitis A outbreak in California

Hepatitis A outbreaks popped up in San Diego and Los Angeles County in September, and are now spreading across California. The highly contagious virus is normally mild, but hospitals quickly noticed that was not the case with this outbreak.

The outbreak numbers are higher in San Diego, where nearly 450 people have been infected, than in Los Angeles County, where 10 people have contracted the virus.

Because the disease is so contagious, it can easily spread. There have already been 69 cases reported in Santa Cruz that are believed to have originated in San Diego. Health professionals say there is reason for concern for those at high risk.

Contraction and symptoms

Hepatitis A is a serious virus that can cause liver failure and death. People become infected by ingesting the feces of someone who is infected, which can happen through contaminated food or sexual contact.

It takes about three weeks to notice symptoms, which include vomiting, fever, yellowing of the skin, joint pain, and dark urine. If you are experiencing these symptoms, seek medical help immediately.

California’s most vulnerable

Normally cases of hepatitis A are fairly mild, but the cases in California are much more severe — landing many people in the hospital and even leading to deaths. Medical professionals say this is largely due to the growing populations contracting the disease.

People over the age of 50 or with other liver diseases, like hepatitis B or C, are the most at risk of contracting the disease. These factors have played a heavy role in the spread of the outbreak in California.

The outbreak is mainly affecting medically vulnerable populations: the homeless, jail inmates, and drug users. Not only are these individuals more likely to contract the disease in shared spaces, like restrooms and shelters, but they are also more likely to suffer serious complications from hepatitis A because of outstanding health issues, like alcoholism.

To combat the spread of the disease, San Diego and Los Angeles have put street bleaching programs into place. Health workers are also distributing 400,000 vaccinations to the homeless, jail inmates, active drug users and medical providers.

With all cases of Hepatitis A, people who use street drugs, travel to areas with high levels of transmission, or participate in same-sex intercourse are at a higher risk of infection.

Even though the outbreak is mainly in the homeless community, anyone can contract hepatitis A. Each year, about 40 to 60 people are infected with the virus in L.A. County — mostly through contaminated food.

Should you get vaccinated?

The best way to protect against hepatitis A is by getting the vaccine, and medical professionals across the state are urging children and adults get vaccinated.

While California has been vaccinating all newborns against hepatitis A for the past 20 years, if you were born elsewhere you or your loved ones may still need the vaccination.

Doctors recommend that children get the two doses of the vaccination between 12 to 23 months. For adults — those 18 years or older — who have yet to be vaccinated, now is the time.

You can get vaccinated at your doctor's office, in most urgent care clinics and at county public health departments.

To protect yourself from contracting the virus, do not share food or drinks and wash your hands before eating and after using the bathroom.

Read more about the hepatitis A outbreaks affecting California.

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