Utah’s hepatitis A outbreak — one of three flare-ups around the country — isn’t slowing down.
The Utah Department of Health released new numbers Monday showing 87 outbreak-related cases of the virus since the first case was discovered in May. A total of 95 hepatitis A cases have been reported in Utah since the start of the year, but the additional cases don’t involve the strain behind infections in California or Michigan, where the other two outbreaks started last year.
In the past two weeks, the Health Department has added 12 new cases to its tally. Usually, Utah sees just three or four hepatitis A cases annually. All have been centered on the state’s homeless population.
“The key to keeping this outbreak from spreading to the general public is in making sure that everyone practices proper hygiene and hand washing,” said Gary Edwards, executive director of the Salt Lake County Health Department.
The state and county departments on Tuesday announced a campaign to educate the public about the outbreak. It includes a website, health.utah.gov/hepatitisa, with basic information about the virus and hand-washing directions. It also has tips for food workers and restaurant owners; some of Utah’s previous worst hepatitis outbreaks were attributed to contaminated restaurants.
The viral disease — which in rare cases can be deadly — usually spreads when traces of infected feces reach the mouth through contaminated food, water or dirty hands. Symptoms can include fever, diarrhea, vomiting and jaundice, or yellowing of the skin.
While most healthy people recover within weeks, the homeless are especially vulnerable because they often suffer from underlying medical conditions or drug addictions that can make their symptoms more dire. Jeff Eason, an epidemiologist with the Utah Health Department, said underlying illness is likely why this outbreak is seeing hospitalization rates of about 60 percent, compared to previous outbreaks, which were less than 40 percent.
Along with educating the public, health officials have offered daily vaccines where homeless people gather.
So far, 66 cases have been reported in Salt Lake County, with another 14 in Utah County. Some 46 people were co-infected with either hepatitis B, hepatitis C, or both, according to health department data. The majority of those sickened have been men.
None have died.
That’s a key difference between Utah and Michigan and southern California, which have reported a combined 41 deaths, and more than 800 hospitalizations, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.