As of publishing this blog post, my hometown of San Diego is/was in the middle of one of the largest Hepatitis A outbreaks in a long time. 16 people have died and hundreds more have fallen ill. While those affected are primarily homeless and illicit drug users, the outbreak can easily spread. Officials have recently announced a potential exposure to the virus at a popular Pacific Beach establishment called World Famous. Past outbreaks of Hepatitis A in the United States have involved contaminated vegetables, fruits, seafood, water and dairy. These products were either sold in grocery stores or supplied to restaurants, potentially infecting many. Therefore, it’s important to understand what Hepatitis A is and how to prevent it because it really can happen anytime, anywhere, to anyone.
What is Hepatitis A?
Hepatitis is a general term referring to inflammation of the liver. There are actually many causes of hepatitis, ranging from drug induced or alcohol use, to bacterial and viral infections. The most common viruses that cause hepatitis are Hepatitis A, B and C, which are all spread a little differently and cause slightly varying disease. While B and C cause chronic liver disease, and potentially liver cancer, A causes an acute infection. That means most people will recover from the infection without long-term complications. However, some people will experience liver failure and some will even die from Hepatitis A infection.
Symptoms of Hepatitis A range from no symptoms at all to serious liver disease. The most common symptoms patients experience are:
- Nausea and vomiting
- Abdominal pain
- Jaundice (yellow skin)
- Dark urine
- Light colored stools
How is Hepatitis A spread?
The Hepatitis A virus causes infection when someone ingests anything contaminated with the virus. Because the virus is spread via the fecal-oral route, items like food, hands or other objects become contaminated when fecal material of an infected person comes into contact with these items. Someone infected with Hepatitis A can get the virus on their hands if they do not properly wash their hands after going to the bathroom and spread it to others or to the food supply. Food contamination can occur at any point during production: growth, harvesting, processing, packaging or preparing. The virus can also be spread by sexual contact.
If you think you have been exposed to Hepatitis A by a close contact, from food that has been recalled due to contamination, or from a restaurant that has reported an exposure, you can obtain post exposure prophylaxis with immune globulin and vaccination. Immune globulin provides antibodies to a specific infection to fight the germ before infection takes hold. It can lessen severity of infection or prevent infection all together.
How is Hepatitis A treated?
There is no specific anti-virus treatment to get rid of Hep A once an infection has been diagnosed. Some patients may need to be hospitalized for supportive care and alcohol should definitely be avoided. However, the best bet is always prevention…
How is Hepatitis A prevented?
HAND WASHING! As with any other infection, good hand washing with soap and water removes the virus from the hands. This is extremely important after using the bathroom and before preparing food. Washing fruits and vegetables, as well as properly cooking food, also helps reduce the risk of infection from many things that can contaminate food.
VACCINATION! A safe and effective vaccine is available for all children over age 1. Vaccination allows the body to make antibodies to the virus without suffering from the infection itself. Giving the Hepatitis A vaccine provides 94-100% protection against the virus. Routine vaccination is recommended but for anyone who wasn’t vaccinated as a child, vaccination may be necessary before traveling to a country with a high rate of disease. Keep in mind that it takes 2-4 weeks for the vaccine to be effective so plan accordingly. Vaccination is also recommended for close contacts or caregivers of anyone who is at risk for, or has the infection, people with other chronic liver disease, people who use IV drugs and men who have sex with men.