Of the five people in Highland County who have been diagnosed with hepatitis A, at least three are known to use illegal intravenous drugs — but the county health commissioner said there are likely many more here who have the infection, and health officials are working to keep an outbreak at bay.
Amid what officials have called a statewide community outbreak of hepatitis A and an apparent uptick in local cases, Highland County Health Commissioner Jared Warner and Debbie Iles, director of nursing at the Highland County Health Department, said locals only have to respond in two ways: Get vaccinated, and don’t panic.
While hepatitis A symptoms can be severe and last several months, those who contract it usually recover completely, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Even so, to prevent an outbreak here, Warner said the Highland County Health Department has been running an education campaign to keep citizens and officials aware of the infection and the nursing staff is working hard to monitor local cases.
“They’re constantly out there working behind the scenes, making phone calls,” he said.
According to the CDC, hepatitis A is a highly contagious liver infection caused by the hepatitis A virus. It can range in severity from a mild illness lasting a few weeks to a severe illness lasting several months.
Not all who are infected show symptoms, according to the CDC, but if they do, symptoms usually appear two to six weeks after infection, and can include fever, fatigue, loss of appetite, nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, dark urine, gray-colored stools, joint pain and jaundice.
The infection is usually spread when a person ingests fecal matter, even in microscopic amounts, from contact with objects, food or drinks contaminated by feces or stool from an infected person, according to the CDC.
According to the CDC, those at highest risk for hepatitis A are people who travel to or live in countries where the infection is common, people who have sexual contact with someone who has it, men who have sexual encounters with other men, people who use recreational drugs, whether injected or not, people who have clotting-factor disorders and people who take care of others who have hepatitis A.
While drug users are often at higher risk of contracting hepatitis B or C from sharing needles, Warner said the general hygiene of those who frequently use illegal intravenous drugs can facilitate the spread of hepatitis A, and he said he believes that’s the case here.
Warner said the hepatitis A cases in Highland County were identified when those infected were hospitalized for their symptoms, but since it’s possible to have minor symptoms or no symptoms while infected, more people here could have the infection and spread it without knowing.
According to Warner, hepatitis A becomes more of a public concern when food service workers are infected. In that case, the health department has to inform the public that if they visited a restaurant where a worker with hepatitis A was employed, they should be vaccinated, Warner said. Warner said that happened in Bainbridge and the restaurant ended up closing.
To keep the same thing from happening here, Warner said the health department is distributing flyers to local restaurants to keep proprietors and employees aware.
Warner said fortunately for local restaurants, none of the five confirmed hepatitis A cases here are food service workers.
“It’s really difficult on local businesses,” he said.
According to Warner, the health department has also distributed flyers at the county jail and inpatient drug treatment facilities.
The best way to prevent hepatitis A is with a vaccine, Warner said. The hepatitis A vaccine is a series of two shots, the first providing 93-percent protection from the infection and the second providing the remaining 7 percent, according to Warner. There is no need for booster vaccines.
According to Iles, those who have come into contact with the infection have a 14-day window during which the vaccine is effective.
Iles said even if locals don’t think they have come into contact with hepatitis A, “we should all be proactive and get the vaccine.”
Iles said the health department administered 30 hepatitis A vaccines in July, 33 in August and 45 in September.
Warner said the health department has 110 vaccines remaining. People who are uninsured or under insured can get vaccinated for a $10 administration fee at the health department, Warner said.
The Highland County Health Department can be reached at 937-393-1941.
Reach David Wright at 937-402-2570.