By Cassandra Reinhart, Special to the Independent
An increase in Hepatitis A among the homeless populations in both San Diego and Los Angeles counties is prompting a warning to Laguna Beach Friendship Shelter homeless volunteers and the Orange County homeless community.
Both San Diego and Los Angeles Counties are experiencing Hepatitis A outbreaks primarily in their homeless and illicit drug user populations.
San Diego County has reported 444 cases of Hepatitis A and Los Angeles County has reported 10 cases. Orange County has had one case of Hepatitis A in a person with a history of homelessness who travelled to San Diego during the potential exposure period.
“We don’t have an outbreak here in Orange County yet,” said Helene Calvet, Deputy Health Officer with the Orange County Healthcare Agency. “Just by proximity to San Diego we are at risk but its really predominantly affected people who are homeless or using drugs. It’s not a major threat to the public in general.”
Given the outbreaks in neighboring counties, the Orange County Healthcare Agency is recommending Hepatitis A vaccine for all persons who are homeless or use illicit drugs in Orange County.
In the last six months, the OCHCA has proactively vaccinated over 700 at-risk persons, offering free vaccines to the homeless and others at risk.
A vaccine shortage has limited the free dose to those groups, though homeless volunteers can pay for the vaccine and it is usually covered by insurance.
“This is a very serious matter, as Hepatitis A can cause serious illness and death,” Friendship Shelter Program Director Mia Ferreira said in an email to Laguna Beach homeless volunteers. “Our OC Public Health Department has been proactive and is offering free vaccines to our folks and any others at risk.”
Hepatitis A is a contagious virus that can cause inflammation of the liver. Symptoms include jaundice (yellow eyes or skin), abdominal pain, dark urine, pale (light-colored) stool, extreme tiredness, loss of appetite, fever, nausea, vomiting, or diarrhea. Some people, especially children, do not have any symptoms. Illness occurs about one month after exposure, and is usually spread when the virus is taken in by mouth through contact with objects, food, or drinks that are contaminated by feces from an infected person, or through sexual contact.
Unlike hepatitis B and C, hepatitis A is rarely fatal, but it can cause debilitating symptoms and acute liver failure. Calvet says health officials are trying to figure out why the explosion of cases in San Diego.
“I don’t know we have a good explanation for why the rise,” said Calvet. “The outbreak in San Diego has been going on for six months or longer than that. Unfortunately, when you have people affected by homelessness, living in poor hygienic conditions, that’s how Hep A can be spread.”
Frequent hand washing can help prevent the spread of Hepatitis A. Ferreira reminded Laguna Beach homeless volunteers that hand-washing during food prep at the shelter and during food service is critical for safety.
“Because not everyone that has Hepatitis A exhibits symptoms, frequent hand-washing, especially after using the bathroom and before preparing food, can help prevent the spread of Hepatitis A,” Ferreira said.
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