Public health emergency declared over Florida’s Hepatitis A outbreak

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With Hepatitis A cases nearly quadrupling in the first seven months of this year compared to last year, Florida Surgeon General Scott Rivkees has declared a public health emergency for the state.

Through July 27, 2,034 Floridians have contracted the liver disease, which can be spread from person to person, since the beginning of the year, according to the state Department of Health. There were 548 cases reported in 2018, the agency said.

State health officials identified 17 Florida counties that are considered “critically impacted areas.” They are Brevard, Citrus, Glades, Hernando, Hillsborough, Lake, Liberty, Manatee, Marion, Martin, Okeechobee, Orange, Pasco, Pinellas, Sumter, Taylor and Volusia counties.

Some of the highest rates of Hepatitis A cases are in Pinellas, Pasco and Hernando counties, state officials said. Since Jan. 1, 2018, those counties have reported between 30 to 80 cases per 100,000 residents, according to the state Department of Health.

In the declaration that was issued late Thursday, Rivkees said people at the highest risk from complications from the disease include those with chronic liver disease and residents over the age of 60 with a serious underlying medical condition.

The state is asking for assistance from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Rivkees said.

The liver disease can be contracted from person-to-person contact or indirectly if someone ingests fecal matter infected with Hepatitis A, state health officials said.

The disease can be prevented by vaccines and through diligent hand-washing procedures, particularly after using the bathroom, changing diapers or before preparing food, state health officials said.

Individuals at risk include the homeless, intravenous drug users, gay men, liver-disease patients, blood-clotting disorder patients, emergency and medical workers who deal with potentially infected patients and residents over the age of 60, particularly in the high-impact counties, state health officials said.

Rivkees is advising all public and private entities that have restrooms or showers used by the public to clean the facilities at least once a day with a solution that include 1.66 cups of chlorine bleach for every gallon of water. He also said other disinfectants approved by federal health officials can used.

But the declaration notes commonly used alcohol-based hand sanitizing products are not effective against the disease.

The emergency declaration asks all health-care providers to watch for individuals who may be infected. Hepatitis A is characterized by flu-like symptoms such as fever, chills and decreased appetite and gastrointestinal issues such as vomiting, diarrhea and abdominal pain, state health officials said.

Vaccines are the most effective method for preventing the disease. And since October 2018, the number of first doses of the Hepatitis A vaccine being administered either by private health providers or county health departments is “well above” the previous five-year average, state health officials said.

In the week ending July 27, 4,227 doses were administered, according to the data. There were also 53 new Hepatitis A cases reported that week.

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