Hepatitis A outbreak now at 31 cases, state working to identify source

Additional cases of hepatitis A infection have been reported to the Hawaii State Department of Health (DOH), increasing the number from 19 to 31 in less than a week. Health officials say cases could even pop up on the neighbor islands

The infection is usually spread by drinking or eating contaminated food and water, so the Department of Health has been conducting interviews and asking people to remember what they ate or drank as far as a month ago.

State epidemiologist Dr. Sarah Park told KHON2 this is an especially hard disease to trace, because the incubation period for hepatitis A can last anywhere from two weeks to as long as 50 days.

“We’re not CSI. Hollywood makes things look so easy and in real life, it’s not that easy. It’s challenging,” Dr. Park said.

With the number of cases increasing, the Department of Health is looking to get the word out.

“This is a time I’d say encourage people to get vaccinated, we have a lot of pharmacies with vaccine clinics and its easy, talk to a doctor,” Dr. Park advises.

This is the most significant hepatitis A outbreak the state has seen since 2013, when frozen berries nationwide were responsible for the spread of the disease.

“It is very possible we won’t find an exposure at the end of all this,” Dr. Park adds.

Dr. Park says it’s important to know how to protect yourself. She recommends:

  • get vaccinated
  • frequent hand washing with soap and warm water after using the bathroom
  • washing hands before preparing food
  • appropriately cooking and preparing foods

“That’s why it’s important for everyone to understand what steps they can take now, to protect themselves and in the event that they were exposed, because there could be people exposed and don’t know it yet what to do when they start to feel symptoms,” Dr. Park said.

“Identifying the source of infection is a challenge,” said State Epidemiologist Dr. Sarah Park. “Hepatitis A has a long incubation period lasting anywhere from two weeks to as long as 50 days. Accurately recalling all of the foods consumed and locations visited during the period when infection could have taken place is challenging for many, especially those who are still feeling ill.”

Patients infected with hepatitis A virus are most contagious during the week before the symptoms start until at least one week after the start of the first symptoms. “Since people are contagious before they feel ill, we are very concerned about the disease unknowingly being spreading to others,” said Health Director Dr. Virginia Pressler.

The virus is found in the stool of people with hepatitis A infection and is usually spread by eating contaminated food or drinking water, and can be spread through close personal or sexual contact. A person who has hepatitis A can easily pass the disease to others within the same household. For this reason, DOH investigators are currently reaching out to individuals who were in contact with those who have or had hepatitis A.

Hepatitis A vaccine or immune globulin (a substance made from human blood plasma that contains antibodies to protect the body against diseases) administered within the first two weeks after exposure may provide some protection against the disease. Unvaccinated individuals recently exposed to the disease are encouraged to talk to their healthcare providers about these preventive measures.

DOH continues to encourage the public to review their immunization record and talk to their healthcare provider about vaccination. Click here for a list of vaccinating pharmacies or call the Aloha United Way information and referral line at 2-1-1.

While vaccination provides the best protection, frequent handwashing with soap and warm water after using the bathroom, changing a diaper, or before preparing food can help prevent the spread of Hepatitis A. Appropriately cooking and preparing foods can also help prevent infection.

Click here for information about hepatitis A.

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