And like any news story about the spread of infectious diseases, those headlines can seem scary at first glance. Vincent Covelli, DO, an infectious disease specialist at St. Mary High Desert Medical Group, says when it comes to hepatitis A, it pays to be informed--and immunized. Here's what you should know:
What is hepatitis A?
This is a liver disease caused by the hepatitis A virus. "It's not quite the same as hepatitis B or C, which are caused by different viral strains and occur more frequently than hepatitis A," Dr. Covelli says. "Hepatitis A inflames the liver, triggering an illness that can last up to several months at its most severe. It's important to note that, unlike hepatitis B and C, the hepatitis A virus doesn't stay in the body, and usually doesn't cause permanent liver damage or a chronic health condition." While deaths have been reported with the San Diego outbreak, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention states that hepatitis A deaths are rare. The San Diego cases are attributed to the fact that the disease is predominately affecting the homeless community, where many people lack regular health care and already have additional medical conditions, such as liver problems, that leave them more vulnerable to the disease.
How does it spread?
"Hepatitis A generally spreads because of poor hygiene," Dr. Covelli says. "It can be contracted orally through particles of fecal matter that come from someone who is infected. So that means you can get the disease if someone who is infected doesn't wash their hands after going to the bathroom and then handles your food or drink. You can also contract it through sex or other close contact with someone who has hepatitis A." Homeless communities have been hardest hit in these recent outbreaks because of unsanitary conditions that allow the disease to spread.
How do you know if you have hepatitis A?
You won't experience symptoms until a few weeks after contracting the disease (and some people never have symptoms). Dr. Covelli says that typical signs of hepatitis A include fever, nausea and vomiting, stomach and joint pain, fatigue, dark-colored urine and jaundice in the skin and eyes. "If you have these symptoms and think you may have been exposed to hepatitis A--say, you've eaten at a restaurant where there's been an outbreak or traveled to a country where hepatitis A is prevalent--you should see your doctor, who can confirm you have the disease with a blood test." There is no medication to cure the virus, Dr. Covelli says, adding that the best way to get through the disease is to eat well and get plenty of fluids and rest. "On the plus side, if you do get hepatitis A, you will develop antibodies that keep you from ever getting it again."
How do you prevent hepatitis A?
The absolute best way is with the hepatitis A vaccine. "The vaccine has been around since 1995, and it's part of the recommended vaccine schedule for children," Dr. Covelli says. "Many adults may not have gotten the vaccine, but if they are in a position where they could be exposed to hepatitis A, they should get it." Another preventive measure: practicing good hygiene. "Washing hands with soap and warm water can help prevent the spread of disease--not just hepatitis A, but many others--so it's always a good practice," Dr. Covelli says.
This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your health care professional's instructions.