Spokane County Sees Increase in Hepatitis A Outbreak

Oct 24, 2019

For more information, contact Kelli Hawkins, SRHD Public Information Officer (509) 324-1539 or khawkins@srhd.org.

Over 1,335 Vaccinations Administered

SPOKANE, Wash. — As of Wednesday, Oct. 23, the Spokane Regional Health District (SRHD) confirmed a total of 47 cases of hepatitis A in Spokane County, an increase from the three cases reported in June. Most cases are occurring in people living homeless and/or who use drugs; the risk to the general population of acquiring hepatitis A is low. 

SRHD’s disease prevention and response team has coordinated multiple vaccination clinics since June when the outbreak was declared, administering over 1,335 vaccines within our homeless and incarcerated populations throughout Spokane County. In addition, the team has conducted education programs and outreach to healthcare providers, community centers, and homeless service providers that teach vulnerable populations the risks of contracting hepatitis A, actions they can take to prevent exposure, and symptoms to watch for. 

“The collaboration with our community partners such as the House of Charity, Rite Aid, Salvation Army, UGM, and area correctional facilities has been phenomenal,” said Dr. Bob Lutz, SRHD health officer. “Our community organizations that serve these vulnerable populations have been more than willing to open their doors and lend a hand.” 

SRHD is working with homeless service providers to make the vaccine available. It can also be obtained from healthcare providers and pharmacies. 

“The increase in cases is not unexpected,” explained Dr. Lutz. “Once contracted, the hepatitis A virus has an incubation period that could have begun before a vaccine was administered. As we work diligently to ensure those at risk receive the vaccine, the number of cases will decrease; our prompt attention has kept the virus from spreading even further.” 

In both the national and local outbreaks, a high proportion of cases have had severe infections due to the vulnerable health status of the affected populations. In Spokane, 72 percent of the cases have been hospitalized. Washington State Department of Health is monitoring hepatitis A outbreaks throughout the state. Multiple counties in Washington have reported hepatitis A cases, and the Department of Health declared a statewide outbreak in July 2019. 

Hepatitis A virus infects the liver and can cause illness ranging from a mild infection with no symptoms to a more severe illness that can last for months. Hepatitis A virus usually spreads when a person unknowingly ingests the virus after touching an object, food, or drink contaminated with the virus. Unsanitary conditions that result from homelessness, such as a lack of handwashing facilities and bathrooms, as well as drug use, provide the environment for hepatitis A outbreaks to occur. 

“If an infected person doesn’t wash their hands well, especially after toileting, undetectable amounts of the virus can spread from the hands of that person to other objects, surfaces, and foods,” said Dr. Lutz. “Fortunately, it is a vaccine-preventable disease, so it is important that you get vaccinated if you haven’t already.” 

Vaccination is an important measure of hepatitis A prevention. The vaccine is safe and nearly 100 percent effective with two doses. It usually consists of two shots given six months apart. Hepatitis A vaccination is recommended for all children at age one year, travelers to countries where hepatitis A is common, people experiencing homelessness, men who have sex with men, people who use or inject drugs, people with chronic or long-term liver disease, people with clotting factor disorders, people with direct contact with others who have hepatitis A, family and caregivers of adoptees from countries where hepatitis A is common, and anyone wishing to obtain immunity. 

Adults are more likely to have symptoms than children. If symptoms develop, they usually appear two to seven weeks after infection and can include yellow skin or eyes (jaundice), dark urine and/or pale stools, loss of appetite, fever, diarrhea, fatigue, vomiting, joint pain, and abdominal pain. Anyone with symptoms consistent with hepatitis A should seek medical attention. 

More information and resources on hepatitis A can be found at www.srhd.org/hepatitis-a

The Spokane Regional Health District is a leader and partner in public health by protecting, improving and promoting the health and well-being of all people through evidence-based practices. SRHD is one of 34 local public health agencies serving Washington state’s 39 counties. Visit www.srhd.org for comprehensive, updated information about the SRHD and its triumphs in making Spokane a safer and healthier community. Like SRHD on Facebook or follow us on Twitter to receive safety and wellness tips.