State health officials declare hepatitis A outbreak

Pennsylvania has declared an outbreak of hepatitis A.

The number of hepatitis A cases reported since January of 2018 is 171, according to the May 20 announcement by the state’s Department of Health.

The counties hardest hit by the outbreak are Philadelphia and Allegheny, but cases have been seen in 36 counties throughout the state, according to Dr. Rachel Levine, Pennsylvania’s secretary of health.

The Lehigh Valley and Berks County, however, do not appear to be experiencing an increase in hepatitis A cases, based on information received by Lehigh Valley Business.

“St. Luke’s sees hepatitis A cases from time to time,” said Samuel Kennedy, media relations representative for St. Luke’s University Health Network. “At the moment, the number of cases we are seeing is not above our normal baseline.”

Tower Health in Reading is also not reporting an above-normal number of cases.

“From January 2018 through the end of April of 2019, we only saw a total of eight cases,” said Marie Keim, Director of Epidemiology and Infection Prevention at Tower Health. “This is about normal.”

Keim explained that hepatitis A is a liver infection that has a fecal/oral spread, meaning it is spread when infected stool gets into the mouth of an uninfected person. This can happen when an infected person does not have good bathroom hygiene, and prepares food that other people eat.

Symptoms of hepatitis A can be mild and last several weeks, according to the Department of Health. More severe infections can last several months. Many people infected do not experience any symptoms. Symptoms can include fever, loss of appetite, nausea and vomiting, stomach pain and jaundice.

While there is no cure for hepatitis A, symptoms can be managed and most people make a full recovery, according to Keim.

“We are taking this action now to be proactive in our response to treating Pennsylvanians suffering from this illness and prevent it from spreading,” said secretary of health Levine. “The best way to prevent hepatitis A is through vaccination.”

Dr. Levine noted that Pennsylvania’s neighboring states of Ohio and West Virginia have seen more than 2,000 cases since January 2018. By declaring an outbreak, Pennsylvania is eligible for federal funds to purchase additional vaccines if it is needed.

“It’s hard to know for sure why we are experiencing an outbreak of hepatitis A,” Dr. Levine said. “We do know that the commonwealth has seen an increase of diseases like hepatitis C and HIV because of the opioid epidemic.”

People who use injected illicit drugs are at increased risk of contracting Hepatitis A, reports the Department of Health, as well as those who are homeless, and men who have sex with men.

Enhanced hepatitis A information is available on the state’s Department of Health website, health.pa.gov.