California combats deadly hepatitis A outbreak

A flyer in downtown San Diego explains how people can protect themselves from Hepatitis A

Story highlights

  • 600 cases, 19 deaths confirmed in California
  • Gov. Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency

(CNN)As firefighters continue to battle blazes across the state of California, public health officials are dealing with another ongoing crisis: one of the largest person-to-person hepatitis A outbreaks in the country since the development of a vaccine, more than two decades ago.

An update provided Thursday by the California Department of Public Health (CDPH) raises the case count to 600. 395 people have been hospitalized and 19 have died since November 2016.
    Last week, California governor Jerry Brown declared a statewide state of emergency, in an attempt to stop the spread of the virus. The proclamation permits CDPH to expedite the procurement of the hepatitis A vaccine. It also allows EMTs to administer the vaccine, outside of a clinical setting, to high-risk individuals -- which include the homeless and illicit drug users.
    "Vaccinating people at risk of exposure is the most effective tool we have to prevent the spread of hepatitis A infection during an outbreak," said CDPH director Dr. Karen Smith, in a written statement.
    San Diego, Santa Cruz and Los Angeles counties have officially declared local outbreaks, but CDPH said outbreak-associated cases have been confirmed in other parts of the state, as well. The agency said it has already distributed more than 80,000 doses of the hepatitis A vaccine.
    "We have what is a pretty unprecedented outbreak, based on the number of cases we have so far," CDPH deputy director for infectious diseases, Dr. Gil Chávez, told CNN. "Dating back to March, we have been taking this extremely seriously and have been working very closely with officials from the affected counties, as well as officials from the CDC."
    The answer to the question, "Why now?" remains elusive. Somehow, the highly contagious liver infection hepatitis A was introduced into the homeless community. Poor hygiene and lack of access to clean bathrooms exacerbate the risk of contracting the virus. According to the CDC, person-to-person transmission via the "fecal-oral route" -- "ingestion of something that has been contaminated with the feces of an infected person" -- is the most common way the virus spreads. It can also be transmitted through contaminated food or water.
    Typically, fewer than 3,000 cases of hepatitis A are reported each year in the United States, according to the CDC. Many adults who become infected will exhibit symptoms after about a month of being exposed to the virus. Symptoms can include fever, fatigue, loss of appetite, nausea, vomiting and abdominal pain, and usually last less than two months. The majority of children who become infected will not exhibit any symptoms at all.
    "One of the things that we've learned since March is that a lot of the usual ways to vaccinate communities don't work very well with (the homeless) community," Chávez said. "You cannot just say, 'We're holding a vaccination clinic at a certain place' and expect that people are going to show up."
    Chávez said CDPH has been working closely with local health departments to get creative with homeless outreach.