Hepatitis A outbreak in Salt Lake County

SALT LAKE CITY (ABC4 Utah) There is now an outbreak of hepatitis A in Salt Lake County and health officials are working hard to prevent it from becoming an epidemic like it has in California.

San Diego has declared an emergency and officials there are power washing the streets with bleach after an epidemic has killed 16 people and made another 421 sick. 65% of those affected are homeless. Officials say it started with that population and spread.

Here's the ominous part of the story from Ilene Risk, head of epidemiology at the Salt Lake County Health Department. "It's been tested and we have the same type of hepatitis virus occurring here that's occurring in California."

She has confirmed 23 cases so far this year, most of them in the last two months. That compares to a yearly average of only 2 cases.  Risk says 70% of them are homeless and a lot can be blamed on hygiene.

"We've seen this outbreak associated with fecally contaminated environments. Situations where somebody just doesn't have access to soap and running water. Where they are unable to wash their hands."

So health officials have launched an education campaign on hygiene and they are trying to immunize as many people as they can, offering free hep A shots at places like Pioneer Park and the library.

The 4th Street Clinic, which serves the homeless, is also doing its part. "Making sure that all of our patients are educated," says Laurel Ingham at 4th Street. "Offering the hepatitis A vaccine. Even if they refused it in the past, we are offering it again. Of course that would be free of charge for our patients."

The Health Department estimates that 760 people have been vaccinated so far.

It can be spread through direct contact with an infected person like a handshake, or a kiss or sex. But more concerning is indirect contact you may not even know about.

If an infected person touches a pen, a doorknob, the handles on a TRAX train, then you touch it and then make contact with your mouth or eyes "you could ingest the virus that way," says Ilene Risk at the Health Department.

"It takes a very minute amount of virus and this virus is basically found in feces. So it's an unpleasant thought but you're ingesting fecally contaminated material."

What to look for? Risk says symptoms are usually abrupt. "They can include fever, stomach pain, feeling very tired. It can cause jaundice, yellowing of the skin and the eyes. And it can last for weeks and sometimes months."

Other than a vaccination, the best preventative is so simple says Laurel Ingham at The 4th Street Clinic.

"Wash your hands after you go to the restroom. Wash your hands after you touch anything. Common proper hygiene. Common sense. Wash your hands."

This proactive approach will hopefully prevent an epidemic like the one in California from ever happening in Utah. 

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