The Louisiana Department of Health declared an outbreak of hepatitis A for the state on Tuesday.
According to the department, most of the recent cases have been reported in Morehouse Parish, cases have been reported in other parts of the state.
By declaring the 24 known cases to be an outbreak, the health agency hopes to raise the public’s awareness about the disease, convince those who are at risk for hepatitis A to get vaccinated and to best coordinate federal, state and community resources.
The News-Star first reported an uptick in hepatitis A cases in Morehouse Parish on Dec. 7.
Dr. Frank Welch, immunization director for the Louisiana Department of Health, said the state was ending the year with more cases than normal with an uptick in Morehouse over the past two to three months.
Welch said the state normally sees between 15 to 20 cases per year. With that average, seeing seven in Morehouse Parish was a lot, according to Welch.
Health officials have not identified a common pathway for the source of the virus such as foods, beverages or drugs.
Instead, Dr. Frank Welch, immunization director for the Louisiana Department of Health, said transmission of the virus appears to be through direct person-to-person contact and illicit drug use.
Officials add that people with a history of injection and non-injection drug use, homelessness or transient housing and incarceration are most at-risk in this outbreak.
“To address the outbreak, the Department’s Office of Public Health has received one-time funding to purchase vaccine for the virus and is working with partner organizations to provide services to people experiencing homelessness or drug use – two of the most at-risk groups for hepatitis A,” Welch said.
Due to a national outbreak of the virus occurring since 2016 and increased state vigilance and coordination with federal and community entities, the state has purchased and distributed additional vaccines to reach high-risk areas in New Orleans and Baton Rouge, as well as in Morehouse Parish, where clusters have been identified.
Through federal and state funding, LDH is partnering with communities to respond quickly to new clusters and vaccinate high-risk individuals to prevent the spread of hepatitis A. So far, the state has purchased 3,000 doses of the vaccine and intends to purchase 1,600 more.
The two most important methods of preventing the spread of HAV are hand washing and vaccination. Because the most common spread of HAV is through the fecal-oral route, people should thoroughly wash their hands with soap and warm water after using the bathroom or changing a diaper.
After a person is exposed to hepatitis A, it can take three to four months to actually get the disease, and unfortunately, the person is infectious before symptoms appear.
"There is about two weeks where they feel perfectly fine, and they're infectious before they start to feel sick," Welch said.
A person is also infectious for about two weeks before and one week after experiencing jaundice, or liver damage that causes the skin to turn yellow.
Hepatitis A is vaccine preventable, and Welch said the vast majority of children are already vaccinated. Anyone who is not vaccinated can contact their primary care provider or parish health unit.
In addition to cases reported in Morehouse Parish, the following parishes have each experienced at least one case but less than five: Ouachita, Allen, Pointe Coupee, Lafayette, West Baton Rouge, East Baton Rouge, Ascension, Livingston, St. Tammany and Orleans.
Hepatitis A Facts
- Hepatitis A is a serious, highly contagious liver disease caused by the hepatitis A virus which is found in the feces of people with hepatitis A.
- The illness is spread by eating contaminated food or drinking contaminated beverages, during sex or through close contact such as living with an infected person.
- Illness can appear 15 to 50 days after exposure and people can be sick for several weeks. In some cases, people can die.
- Although not all people infected with hepatitis A experience illness, symptoms can include nausea and vomiting, abdominal pain, diarrhea, feeling tired, fever, loss of appetite, yellowing of the skin and eyes (jaundice), dark urine, pale-colored feces and joint pain.
- Adults are more likely to display symptoms than children. Symptoms generally last less than two months, though some people may be ill for as long as six months.
- Diagnosis is obtained through a blood sample. Treatment usually includes rest, adequate nutrition, fluids and medical monitoring.