Since January, 214 cases of hepatitis A have been identified statewide. The uptick started last June, and there have been 281 cases in the state since then. In 2017, only 24 cases were reported; there were 37 in 2016.
One of the hot spots is in metro Atlanta, where 34 cases have been reported, including 19 in Fulton County. Others include the Augusta area and the northwest corner of the state, including Ringgold and Dalton, areas that are considered part of suburban Chattanooga.
The outbreak is concentrated among three groups of people: drug users, people who are homeless and men who have sex with men. David Holland, the chief clinical officer for medical and preventive services at the Fulton County Board of Health, said the outbreak is not a threat to general public health, but is dangerous for those groups.
“We’re doing a lot of work to make sure it stays contained,” he said.
The outbreak started in California in 2017, and since then more than 15,000 cases have been reported across the country, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Protection. It has caused 140 deaths, which Holland called “an unusual number” for the disease.
He said the department has been tracking the spread and expected it. Usually, Fulton sees fewer than 10 cases in a year.
Hepatitis A is a virus that infects the liver, and is transmitted through fecal matter. It can be prevented through vaccination, and Fulton County is offering free vaccinations to at-risk people at its health centers, Holland said. It has also been vaccinating people at homeless shelters. The programs will continue as long as the uptick in cases remains.
People who have been exposed to hepatitis A can also receive a treatment within 14 days to prevent the infection. That can also be done at Fulton health departments.
“We want to stop it before we get to the levels we’ve seen in other states, so we can keep it from getting completely out of control,” said Nancy Nydam, a spokesperson for the state Department of Public Health.
The disease spreads primarily through ingesting fecal matter, Nydam said. That can include fecal matter on clothes or hands. Groups are working to identify people who have been exposed, so they can be treated.
Holland said the disease is relatively contagious, and can be contagious for a week or two before symptoms appear. Symptoms include nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain and jaundice. Nydam said the disease is an infection that runs its course in time, and has no lasting effects afterward.
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