California Gov. Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency Friday because an outbreak of deadly hepatitis A has killed at least 18 people in the state, and forced almost 500 to be hospitalized.
According to the San Diego Union Tribune:
The declaration allows state health officials to buy additional doses of the hepatitis A vaccine to try to halt the outbreak, which is already the nation’s second largest in more than two decades.
The outbreak began in San Diego’s homeless community late last year, but has since spread outside the region. Los Angeles and Santa Cruz counties are also now experiencing outbreaks.
So far, 581 people in California have been sickened with the liver virus, more than half of whom have ended up in the hospital. The virus is particularly dangerous, and can be fatal, for people who already have other liver diseases, such as hepatitis B or C.
Federal health officials said last week that, even with the ongoing efforts to slow the spread of the disease, California’s outbreak could last years.
Although Hepatitis A is commonly transmitted by eating contaminated food, California’s outbreak is spreading from person to person, predominantly among the homeless community and drug users.
In spite of half a dozen measures aimed at curtailing the spread of the deadly virus — which is highly contagious and survives for long periods of time — the city and county of San Diego have been unable to stop its spread.
Basic sanitation is the most effective form of prevention. But installing portable hand-washing stations, sanitizing city streets, and distributing vaccines have barely impacted the outbreak.
The Associated Press reported Friday that U.S. Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA) called on the federal government to provide emergency funding to halt the spread of hepatitis A. He reportedly said the outbreak has brought statewide totals to three times the number of reported cases in 2015.
The only other outbreak more serious in the past two decades occurred in 2003 in Pennsylvania, when 900 people were infected after eating contaminated green onions at a restaurant.
The emergency proclamation grants the California Department of Public Health (CDPH) the ability to purchase vaccines immediately and directly from manufacturers, and to distribute them as needed.
How to protect yourself amid Southern California hepatitis outbreaks
A deadly hepatitis A outbreak that started in San Diego has spread to Los Angeles County, but health officials say certain precautions can help you avoid risks.
Brigette Crenshaw, an infection preventionist at Eisenhower Medical Center in Rancho Mirage, said the easiest way people can protect themselves is to wash their hands.
“There shouldn’t be a worry about traveling to San Diego or Los Angeles County as long as they practice good hygiene,” she said.
She said washing hands after using the bathroom is essential. People should also wash their hands after changing a child’s diaper or helping an incontinent older person use the bathroom.
“First and foremost is hand hygiene,” she said.
She added that the disease is typically transmitted when someone comes in contact with feces of an infected person, doesn’t wash their hands, and then prepares food or otherwise transmits the feces to their mouth.
Hepatitis A can also be transmitted through sexual contact, so Crenshaw stressed that people should practice safe sex, including using a condom.
Read more: Questions and answers about hepatitis A
People who have been infected can spread the disease before symptoms appear.
The disease is part of a family of viral diseases that target the liver. While outbreaks do happen in the United States, a 2016 multi-state outbreak was linked to contaminated frozen strawberries, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control. Hepatitis A is more common in countries with poor sanitation systems and limited access to clean water.
Crenshaw recommended anyone who thinks they may be infected consult their primary-care physician.
She said there is no treatment for the virus itself, but patients can seek supportive treatment for the symptoms, which include fever, fatigue, nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain and dark urine. However, there is a vaccine available – two doses administered six months apart – for people who are high risk or who are travelling to an area where the virus is common.