3 Deaths Reported In Waning Utah Hepatitis A Outbreak
SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — A Utah hepatitis A outbreak has killed three people since spreading from San Diego last year, but it's on the wane even as other states deal with similar outbreaks, health officials said Thursday.
The Utah outbreak of the virus began last year among Salt Lake City's homeless population and illicit drug users, and there were fears it could jump to the general population after restaurant and convenience-store workers were infected.
No new cases were discovered in connection with food handlers after a public push to check thousands of customers who visited the restaurants, epidemiologists said.
Hepatitis A is transmitted primarily by oral contact with fecal matter. It attacks the liver and causes symptoms including abdominal pain, nausea, diarrhea, fever and jaundice, health officials say.
Though the Utah outbreak isn't over yet, the number of new cases has slowed down to a few per week, compared to up to a dozen at its height, said Jeffrey Eason with the Utah State Health Department. By comparison, the state usually has fewer than 10 cases per year.
Even as the spread slows in Utah, hepatitis A has been popping up elsewhere: Kentucky has been hit hard, and outbreaks have also been reported in West Virginia and Tennessee, said Michelle Vowles with the Salt Lake County Health Department. Michigan has also been dealing with a large outbreak of a different strain of hepatitis A.
The prevalence around the country created a vaccine shortage and Utah officials had to demonstrate the need for it before they could get a full supply, Eason said. More than $1 million in state, federal and privately donated money went into the effort to stop the virus, which can cause liver failure in extreme cases. Babies began getting routine vaccination for the disease about 20 years ago.
In all, Utah health officials have identified 272 cases of hepatitis A around the state since May 2017. Two people who died had risk factors like homelessness, drug use or recent jail stays. The third death happened in the last two weeks and remains under investigation, said Nicholas Rupp with the Salt Lake County Health Department.
Hepatitis A can spread easily through contaminated food and water and sexual contact, making homeless people without easy access to sanitation particularly vulnerable. To reach them, nurses strapped on backpacks and walked the streets to meet people and get them vaccinated, while others passed out hand wipes to people getting dinner at soup kitchens.
"It was just the perfect opportunity for the virus to spread," Eason said.