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Hepatitis A is on the Rise in the United States

The Editors at Hepatitis Central
September 10, 2021

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Find out what you should know about this new surge in hepatitis A cases, including how to protect yourself from becoming infected with the virus.
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Hepatitis is a virus that causes damage to the liver by creating inflammation. There are three different viruses – hepatitis A, B, and C – which spread and infect the liver differently, according to the CDC. (1)

Hepatitis A is typically a short-term infection that lasts weeks to months without causing serious liver damage, unlike hepatitis B and C. Death or liver failure from hepatitis A is rare, but can occur, especially in those who are elderly with other chronic conditions.

Although hepatitis A has a vaccine that can prevent contracting the virus, cases of infected individuals have been increasing over the last few years. Here’s what you should know about this new surge and how to protect yourself from becoming infected.

What’s causing the sudden spike of the hepatitis A virus?

Unfortunately, public officials can’t exactly put their finger on what is causing this spike in the hepatitis A virus across the U.S. What is known is that most of the outbreaks are among individuals using illicit drugs and who are experiencing homelessness. The outbreak is affecting 36 total states, with Florida, Kentucky, and Ohio experiencing the highest case count.

The hepatitis A vaccine came out way back in 1996, which created a dramatic decline in cases.

  • Back in 2015, the CDC (2) states there were only 1,390 reported cases of hepatitis A.
  • Once late 2016 hit, the outbreak hit and case numbers surged to 37,000 causing high rates of hospitalization, severe complications, and over 340 deaths.
  • As of August 27, 2021 (3) the cases were at 42,004, with 61% of them being hospitalized, and 383 dead.

The CDC is working with state and local health departments to provide support and ensure that vaccine supply and development is ongoing. Ensuring the vaccine is available for at-risk populations is key to dropping these caseloads.

How is hepatitis A spread?

While contaminated food and water is one way for the hepatitis A virus to spread, the main way is via person-to-person.

When someone has the hepatitis A vaccine, even if they aren’t feeling sick, it can be easily spread to someone they have close contact with. This is true in cases where someone is tending to the ill person, using drugs with that individual, or engaging in certain types of sexual contact. (1)

It’s less common to be infected from contaminated food sources, but not impossible. It’s more likely to consume contaminated food that has been imported from other countries where the virus is more prevalent. Even after cooking the food, the virus can still infect you.

Hepatitis A Symptoms

Hepatitis A Symptoms

You can be infected by the hepatitis A virus and not even know it. Not everyone has symptoms, and if they do get them, they may not begin until 2 to 7 weeks after becoming infected. (1)

Some of the most common symptoms include: (1)

  • Yellow skin or eyes (Jaundice)
  • Loss of appetite
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Abdominal pain
  • Fever
  • Dark urine or light-colored stools
  • Diarrhea
  • Joint pain
  • Fatigue

Typically symptoms last less than 2 months, but can last up to 6 months. If you’re concerned you may be experiencing hepatitis A, set up an appointment with your doctor. A blood test will indicate whether you’re currently, or have been, infected with the hepatitis A virus.

Hepatitis A Treatments and Precautions

Once you’ve been infected with hepatitis A, there isn’t a treatment because your body clears the virus on its own. Your doctor will likely recommend focusing on resting, adequate nutrition, and hydration as your body fends off the virus.

The National Health Service (4) states that you should:

  • Get plenty of rest since the early stages of the infection cause fatigue.
  • Take OTC painkillers, such as ibuprofen, to offset any joint pain you’re experiencing. Be sure to check with your doctor on dosage amounts since it will be dependent on how your liver is functioning.
  • Eat small, light meals to reduce nausea and vomiting.
  • Avoid drinking alcohol at all costs since it can be even more strain on your liver.

If symptoms don’t seem to be subsiding, or they get worse, it’s important to follow up with your doctor. In severe cases, it’s possible to require medical care in a hospital.

The individuals at the highest risk of contracting hepatitis A include: (1)

  • International travelers
  • Those who use or inject illegal drugs
  • People who have an occupational risk of exposure
  • People experiencing homelessness
  • Individuals who have chronic liver disease, including hepatitis B and C
  • People with HIV

The Vaccine

When it comes to precautions, there’s one main thing you can do, and that is to get the vaccine. The vaccine is safe for children ages 12 months and older, as well as adults.

There are two forms of the vaccine:

  1. a single dose hepatitis A vaccine given as 2 shots, 6 months apart
  2. and a combination vaccine for hepatitis A and B.

The combo vaccine is only available to those 18 years and older and is given as 3 shots over 6 months. The benefit is that once all 3 shots are administered, you’re protected long-term against both hepatitis A and hepatitis B. (1) If you’re interested in getting the vaccine, ask your doctor or check with your local public health department.

You can also prevent the spread of the virus by thoroughly washing your hands after using the bathroom, changing diapers, and before eating or prepping food. (1)

Conclusion

Although hepatitis A doesn’t tend to be a chronic version of the hepatitis virus like B and C, it is still important to take precautions to avoid becoming ill. One of the main preventatives is to receive the vaccine, which can help to slow this outbreak occurring in the U.S.

  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2020, July 28). What is hepatitis a - faq. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. https://www.cdc.gov/hepatitis/hav/afaq.htm.
  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2020, October 19). Outbreaks of hepatitis A are occurring across the United States. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. https://www.cdc.gov/hepatitis/outbreaks/HepAOutbreaks.htm.
  3. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2021, August 30). Widespread outbreaks of hepatitis a across the U.S.Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. https://www.cdc.gov/hepatitis/outbreaks/2017March-HepatitisA.htm.
  4. (2019, March 11). Treatment. NHS. https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/hepatitis-a/treatment/.
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