Hepatitis A cases up in El Paso County: How to protect yourself

EL PASO COUNTY, Colo. (KKTV) - In response to a rash of Hepatitis A cases in El Paso County, state and local health officials are working to increase access to vaccinations and better educate the public on the virus.

While the number of cases statewide this year (18) is on par with previous years, nearly half have been in El Paso County just since September.

"Widespread hepatitis A outbreaks are becoming more common in the U.S. among people who don’t have the advantages many of us have,” said Dr. Rachel Herlihy, state communicable disease epidemiologist, in a statement Monday. “Unfortunately, living in close quarters, sharing food and other items, and not having routine health care can increase disease spread. Now’s the time to increase vaccination and education among these harder-to-reach populations.”

Hepatitis A is a highly contagious liver infection that can cause a liver disease lasting anywhere from a few weeks to several months, and on rare occasions cause death. It can spread when a person unknowingly ingests the virus from objects, food or drinks that are contaminated by an infected person; it can also be passed through sex or being in close contact with a person, such as caring for someone who is ill.

In response to the uptick in cases, the Colorado Health Department is doing the following:

-Working in El Paso County to hold free vaccination clinics for all high-risk people and provide preventive treatment to people who may have been exposed.
-Promoting hepatitis A vaccination of high-risk people statewide, including free vaccination clinics for uninsured people.
-Collaborating with agencies that serve people experiencing homelessness and people who use street drugs to increase awareness of hepatitis A prevention measures.
- Distributing health and vaccination messages to specific locations using social media and printed materials.
-Increasing guidance to health care providers on case numbers, risk factors, case reporting and vaccine information.
-Preparing for a statewide response to a larger hepatitis A outbreak, should one happen.

In 2017, there was an outbreak in Colorado, resulting in 63 cases.

The health department recommends the vaccination for the following:

-people with chronic liver diseases
-gay or bi men
-children
-people traveling to countries where Hepatitis A is more prevalent
-members of the homeless population
-people who use street drugs (injectible and non-injectible)
-people living with an infected person
-people having sex with an infected person

During the 2017 outbreak, two of the infected were homeless, three were people who reported injection drug use, and 20 were in men who reported having sex with other men.

Symptoms include yellow skin and eyes, fever, fatigue, loss of appetite, nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, dark urine and light-colored stools. The onset of symptoms is usually between two to six weeks, meaning people can easily spread the virus to others before they even know they are infected.

Along with getting vaccinated, the health department advises the public to practice good hygiene, including never sharing items such as towels, toothbrushes and eating utensils.