Two Salt Lake County residents have died from complications due to hepatitis A in the first deaths in Utah since an outbreak began last summer, county health officials announced Tuesday.
One fatality happened in January, officials said, but the Salt Lake County Health Department was unable to confirm the cause until this week due to other health problems affecting the patient. The second death occurred late last month, they said.
The outbreak, which originated in San Diego, has steadily spread among the homeless population in Salt Lake and Utah counties. As of this week, there had been 213 outbreak-associated cases confirmed by the Utah Department of Health, with about half of those requiring hospitalization.
Both people who died were adults and belonged to groups that health experts say are especially susceptible to hepatitis A — including the homeless and drug users. The department declined to provide additional details about the fatalities, citing medical privacy laws.
Despite the deaths, county health officials said they were hopeful the rash of hepatitis A infections is waning, with slightly fewer cases trickling in each week.
The viral disease inflames the liver and can result in fever, diarrhea, vomiting and yellowing of the skin. Those with underlying medical conditions are at the greatest risk and often require hospitalization.
The disease lives in feces and has spread due to unsanitary conditions in the homeless population. A number of cases have also cropped up among jail inmates, or those recently incarcerated, in Salt Lake and Utah counties.
“These deaths are a tragic reminder that hepatitis A is a serious disease — but one that is preventable,” said Dagmar Vitek, medical director for the Salt Lake County Health Department. “Vaccination is the best way to prevent infection, and the vaccine is widely available from health care providers, pharmacies and Salt Lake County immunization clinics.”
The vaccine is given in two shots, at least six months apart, and offers protection against the disease for up to 25 years. Vaccine appointments can be made at Salt Lake County immunization clinics by calling 385-468-SHOT.
Health officials urge people to wash their hands frequently, especially after using the restroom, changing diapers, and eating, serving or preparing food.
“Food handlers must be especially vigilant about hand washing, and we encourage restaurant workers to consider receiving the vaccine to protect both themselves and their customers,” Vitek said.
Health officials continue to conduct daily vaccinations in areas where homeless people congregate, said Nicholas Rupp, a county health department spokesman. They’ve also distributed thousands of hygiene kits, which include soap and disinfectant wipes.
Rupp said the number of new cases reported weekly has dropped to about four to six, from between eight and 10 several months ago. That trend has given health experts hope they may be able to declare the outbreak over sometime later this year, Rupp said.
Salt Lake County has reported 70 percent of all the hepatitis cases statewide, with most of the rest in Utah County.