The San Diego County Health and Human Services Agency (HHSA) has officially declared a local health emergency due to the current outbreak of Hepatitis A, a highly-contagious liver infection that can cause severe liver damage and sometimes death.

The declaration of local health emergency was made after the number of hepatitis A cases in the county hit a 20-year high. Signed Dr. Wilma Wooten, the health emergency will last for until September 07, 2017. Declaring a local health emergency allows the county to request assistance from the state.

Outbreak wrecks havoc in local homeless population

Hepatitis A is a preventable disease that can be easily spread in unsanitary areas, usually in places contaminated with fecal matter. It can be transmitted sexually or through the ingestion of food prepared by an infected person.

People infected with hepatitis A may experience jaundice, fever, nausea, dark urine, stomach pain and loss of appetite. Symptoms may not be apparent for up to 50 days after the initial exposure.

Health officials believe that the outbreak started way back in November. San Diego’s homeless population and illicit drug-using population are the ones heavily affected by the outbreak. So far, HHSA had recorded over 378 confirmed and probable cases of hepatitis A in the county.

Out of those, 70 percent were in need of hospitalization. Additionally, one in five persons diagnosed with hepatitis also has hepatitis C. As of declaration of the health emergency; the HHSA already confirmed 15 deaths due to the outbreak.

Sanitation and proper education could help stop the outbreak

In an effort to put a stop to the spread of hepatitis A, health officers are working diligently to spread awareness about the disease.

County officials are also helping educate the general public on how to prevent further transmission of hepatitis A.

Proper hand washing with soap and water for 20 seconds is still the best way to prevent the disease. Hand washing should be done after using the bathroom and before handling any foods. HSSA also advises the public to avoid having direct contact with door handles of public restrooms, as well as sharing foods, beverages, smoking materials and needles with other people.

To help curb the spread of infection, the county distributed 1,400 hygiene kits to the at-risk population. Additionally, the county collaborated with the city of San Diego to place 40 portable hand washing stations in heavily impacted areas. Teams were also dispatched to clean the streets with water and bleach.

Around 19,000 have received a county-sponsored vaccination. Of those, 7,100 were administered to the at-risk population. Vaccines for hepatitis A are readily available in pharmacies, even without prescriptions. People who can’t afford the vaccines or those without insurance can visit any of the county’s public health centers to receive their vaccinations.