The San Diego Hepatitis A Emergency: What You Need to Know

Posted: Sep 6th, 2017 at 12:00AM - by e7 Health

The San Diego Hepatitis A Emergency: What You Need to Know

Hand-washing is one of its biggest enemies. The last time it left its mark was roughly two decades ago. Many of the victims are homeless or illicit drug users, perhaps contributing to the lack of action that has been taken to prevent and stop it. That doesn’t change the truth of the situation, though: San Diego has declared a local health emergency after having fallen victim to one of the deadliest hepatitis A outbreaks in years — deadly enough to have killed at least 14 people already and hospitalized hundreds, 70% of whom are homeless. It's left the city shocked and scrambling to not only stop the contamination in its tracks, but zero in on the source and prevent it from causing further chaos.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, hepatitis is an inflammation of the liver. It can be caused by drugs, disease, toxins, infections, and excessive alcohol use, and it's highly contagious. Hepatitis A specifically is caused by an infection with the hepatitis A virus, typically when a person ingests it from food, liquids, or objects that have been tainted by the feces of an infected person. Symptoms include jaundice, joint pain, and fatigue, and in extreme cases, death.

So, what went wrong in San Diego, and what's being done to remedy it?

The Mysterious Beginnings of the Outbreak

While the exact cause of the current outbreak has not yet been pinpointed, a large contributing factor has likely been the lack of public restrooms available for homeless people — making it incredibly difficult, if not impossible, to take charge of their own personal hygiene. Others have suspected that the source was food that groups have handed out to San Diego's homeless that was somehow contaminated. With no clean water supply to wash their hands, the virus was able to spread through personal contact even more fiercely.

san diego in the evening

To make matters worse, the severity of the situation has ramped up since the outbreak started last November, and conditions are slow to improve. It took epidemiologists until around March just to confirm that the infections were spreading faster than normal. At this point, nine of the deaths caused by the outbreak happened from mid-July on. It also doesn't help that hepatitis A's incubation period can be up to 28 days, meaning an individual can spread the disease before they even know they have it. With symptoms potentially being milder, it's plausible that the virus might go unnoticed until it's passed to someone who reacts severely enough to warrant attention.

A Plan of Action That Didn't Suffice

While San Diego did have education and vaccination programs in place to try to reduce the rate of those infected, it fell grossly short. The city has reportedly been slow to respond, and homeless people have said that public restrooms continue to be locked sporadically throughout the day, even though they're not supposed to be. Understandably, many are questioning why it has taken this long for the local government to react. Many of San Diego's people have come to a rather disheartening conclusion: the city simply was unprepared for an outbreak of this magnitude.

Steps Moving Forward

In more reassuring news, though, the areas with the highest concentrations of homeless people are having portable handwashing stations installed, to hopefully help bring the outbreak to its end. Additionally, street cleaning crews are using bleach water to high-pressure wash surfaces that could possibly be contaminated with feces, blood, or other bodily fluids. The plan was chosen carefully, and very much on purpose: San Diego is taking the lead from various cities in southern California, like Los Angeles, that have had no cases of hepatitis A that’s related to the strain San Diego is experiencing. It stands to reason that if it worked for these cities, it should work for San Diego, too.

san diego at night

The Hepatitis A Vaccine, and Why You Need It

Experts are urging people to get vaccinated, and largescale efforts are being made to make vaccination available and affordable (even free) to anyone who needs it. The CDC confirms that the absolute best way to prevent hepatitis A is by getting vaccinated. The vaccine contains an inactive hepatitis A virus that triggers your body's immune system. Because of the shot, your body will produce antibodies that are stored inside of you and will protect you from the virus.

The hepatitis A vaccination, given as two shots six months apart, is recommended for just about everyone — starting at children of one year of age. The shot is safe, and no extreme side effects have been documented. Specific groups of people should take extra caution against hepatitis A. If you're traveling to countries where the virus is common (or you have someone from one of these countries staying with you), you should make the vaccine a priority. Individuals who use illegal drugs or suffer from chronic liver diseases should also be vaccinated to prevent illness.

You can rest assured that this vaccine is highly effective, starting anywhere from two to four weeks after the first shot. Once you get the second shot, the protection is more long-term. While washing your hands with warm soap and water is enough to already protect you from the virus, it's better to err on the side of safety and get vaccinated.

San Diego County's Health and Human Services Agency further suggests you always use your own towels, toothbrushes, and food utensils; also, you should refrain from sharing food, beverages, or cigarettes with other people. With how contagious hepatitis A is, maintaining your own belongings and keeping them clean is vital to your health and wellness.

If you live in the Las Vegas areas, there's an easy solution to all your vaccination needs. Whether you need it for student health, STD testing, travel requirements, or another reason entirely, e7 Health Clinic offers a variety of hepatitis vaccinations. If you would like more information on getting vaccinated against hepatitis A or other blood titer tests, contact us today for help or to schedule an appointment at the location nearest you.

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