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To Prevent Hepatitis A: Wash Your Hands and Get Vaccinated!

Posted by Suraj Saggar, DO
Chief, Department of Infectious Diseases
Holy Name Medical Center
Holy Name Medical Partners on December 11, 2019

Suraj Saggar, DO, Chief, Department of Infectious Diseases, Holy Name Medical Center

Recent outbreaks of hepatitis A – including six deaths linked to the liver infection in New Jersey – surely are cause for concern, but it's important to remember that overall rates of the disease have declined for the last generation thanks to an effective vaccine.

There were 548 reported cases of hepatitis A in the state during the past 12 months, according to the New Jersey Department of Health. That number spiked from 68 cases the previous year. The state says it is monitoring and investigating the upsurge.

These outbreaks and five larger ones that have occurred around the country since 2016 have led to 285 deaths in 30 states. Still these incidences – so called community outbreaks – are akin to blips on what remains an overall downward trend line.

Cases in the United States dropped dramatically – nearly 94% - since the vaccine for hepatitis A was introduced in the mid-1990s, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

What to Watch For

Hepatitis A usually is transmitted person to person via a fecal-oral route or by consuming contaminated food or water. Symptoms include fatigue and gastrointestinal distress, such as loss of appetite, stomach pain and vomiting. Dark yellow urine, jaundice and itching can also accompany the infection. Children are largely asymptomatic. Treatment generally involves trying to lessen the symptoms and keeping an eye on blood levels, as liver enzymes are affected.

Unlike other types of viral hepatitis, hepatitis A does not cause long-term liver damage or become chronic. Most symptoms resolve themselves within a couple of months at most. Once infected, a person has lifelong immunity.

In rare cases, usually among older people and those with chronic liver disease, hepatitis A can cause liver failure.

The recent death of an 82-year-old woman in Morris County was linked to an outbreak that sickened more than two dozen people who’d eaten this summer at a Mendham golf club where a food handler had the disease.

Just last month, health officials warned customers of a Paterson produce store to get vaccinated after it was found that a food handler there had hepatitis A.

Some populations are more vulnerable to the spread of hepatitis A, such as the homeless and intravenous drug users or those living in close residential proximity, like people in nursing homes, rehab centers or prisons.

Preventing Hepatitis A

Proper hygiene – like hand-washing – is important in preventing the spread of the infection. You should also avoid eating raw or uncooked shellfish. Make sure to rinse your produce and drink filtered water.

And, of course, the vaccine is recommended for those who are more likely to be exposed, should they be healthcare workers or those traveling to developing countries where hepatitis A is more prevalent.

Federal and state health officials recommend the vaccine for all children at age 1 (12-23 months), men who have sex with men, those who have chronic liver disease or clotting disorders, people who use injected or non-injected street drugs, or those who work in settings where they may be exposed.

Two doses of the vaccine given at least six months apart are needed for lasting protection. (Hemoglobin can also be given to some until they develop their own immunity.)

Contact your primary care physician or local health department for more information about getting vaccinated against hepatitis A.

For a primary care physician, visit holynamemedicalpartners.org.

Dr. Saggar's weekly podcasts, "Recommended Daily Dose," featuring co-host Dr. Clenton Coleman can be heard at HolyName.org/recommendeddailydose, Apple Podcasts, or Spotify.