The California Hepatitis A Outbreak Is Highly Contagious and May Put Us All at Risk

It was just a few months ago when California declared a public health emergency in regards to the current hepatitis A outbreak. The issue really began in 2016, but until recently, it’s flown under the radar. Now, with an alarming number of people catching the disease, local health departments are working furiously to contain the problem before it spreads even more.

If you’re not a California resident, you surely have nothing to worry about — right? Unlike other forms of hepatitis, this one can easily pass from person to person, which should concern you. Here’s what you need to know about the disease and whether or not you may be at risk.

Hepatitis A is proving to be seriously deadly

illustration showing male liver anatomy

Hepatitis is an infection that damages your liver. | iStock.com/sankalpmaya

In case you’re unfamiliar, hepatitis A is an infection that causes inflammation and damage to the liver. Usually it’s hepatitis B and C that are bigger cause for concern, as these types of the disease have the potential to turn into chronic liver problems. But the scary part about hepatitis A is that it’s highly contagious and can still cause serious illness, the CDC reports.

Here’s the good news: If you contract hepatitis A, you probably won’t sustain lasting liver damage and might just feel ill for a few weeks. With that said, the California Department of Public Health reports 21 people have died in the state as a result of the recent outbreak, so it may be deadlier than you think.

The strain currently affecting people in California is rare

California sunset Palm tree rows in Santa Barbara US

The strain of hepatitis A in California is rare. | LUNAMARINA/iStock/Getty Images

The spread of hepatitis A is usually associated with a food-related outbreak. Marler Clark, a food safety law firm, explains fresh produce contaminated with the virus during harvesting or processing has caused illness in the past. And this can occur if the fecal matter of an infected person, such as the food handler, spreads to the product.

Hepatitis A can also spread if you unknowingly come into contact with others who have the virus. Sexual contact or sharing tools for drug use are other risk factors. And Slate notes reports are saying the current strain in California is rare in the U.S., but persisting nonetheless.

Here’s who’s most at risk

Homeless man sleeping outside

The infection is showing up in homeless communities. | David McNew/Getty Images

According to CNN, the virus is primarily affecting homeless communities. And their lack of access to clean bathroom facilities and poor hygiene is making the issue even worse. The virus is relatively stable, too, so it can survive for hours on your hands, or months on dry surfaces.

The Los Angeles Times notes certain parts of California, such as San Diego, are trying to help the problem by installing dozens of hand washing stations. More recently, they’ve also started cleaning the streets with bleach-spiked water.

Vaccines are helpful — but they’re not reaching everyone

Vaccine in vial

It’s harder to reach homeless people. | iStock.com/Mckyartstudio

Public health workers are furiously trying to keep the situation under control by supplying vaccines. The Los Angeles Times says 57,000 people who are either homeless or using drugs in the San Diego county have been vaccinated. Surrounding counties have also hopped on the vaccination train in an effort to help stop the spread.

While the hepatitis A vaccine is incredibly effective, getting it to those who need it is still a challenge. Homeless people are more difficult to reach, and they’re less likely to trust authority figures. They also may not be as concerned about the disease as others, and mental illness can play a role in whether or not they accept vaccination, too.

And the death toll is likely to rise

Homeless man panhandling

A lot of people who died from the infection had underlying conditions. | JOSH EDELSON/AFP/Getty Images

Hepatitis A usually isn’t this deadly. In fact, only about one out of every 100 people who contract the disease dies from it. But the current population affected is more likely to have other underlying conditions that can make the situation worse. The CDPH explains homeless folks and drug users often have liver damage already from alcohol cirrhosis or hepatitis B and C infections. If they contract hepatitis A with this damage already present, it can kill.

The Los Angeles Times notes 17 people who died from hepatitis A in San Diego all had underlying health conditions. And unfortunately, some health officials think the outbreak is far from over.

This isn’t the biggest hepatitis A outbreak to hit the country

Scientist analyzing dish with virus and bacteria cells

There have been bigger hepatitis A outbreaks. | iStock.com/solarseven

While the vaccine generally helps keep hepatitis A at bay, one particularly bad outbreak hit the country in 2003. According to the Marler Clark Foodborne Illness Outbreak Database, customers and employees of a Chi-Chi’s in Pennsylvania got the disease. There were at least 565 confirmed cases of hepatitis A from this incident, and three people died.

So, what was the culprit? It seems eating raw or undercooked green onions was the source of the outbreak. This just shows the disease can wreak major havoc on healthy, well-off populations. And there are already more deaths associated with the current California outbreak than the Chi-Chi’s incident.

Know the symptoms of the disease

female holding her belly due to Stomach Ache

It may take awhile to notice symptoms. | iStock.com

Step one in protecting yourself against the disease is understanding how it spreads. And since hepatitis A is highly contagious, step two is knowing the symptoms. WebMD explains you might develop jaundice, pain in your stomach, nausea, fever, diarrhea, or fatigue if you’re infected.

It can take up to 50 days for a person with hepatitis A to show any of these signs, however, which makes controlling the disease difficult. And some infected people, particularly children, show no signs at all. Even though there’s no cure, it’s important to see a doctor if you believe you may be infected. They can monitor your liver and ensure you’re healing properly.

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