The hepatitis A outbreak in South Carolina is driven by infections among people in high-risk groups, and the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control (DHEC) is asking organizations and individuals who serve those populations to help prevent a more serious outbreak that could affect the general public.
According to a DHEC press release, the agency has been working to vaccinate and educate those who are at the highest risk of being infected by offering vaccines at health departments, special clinics and other locations. The agency also has established partnerships and encouraged health care providers and others to offer the vaccine.
Those individuals at highest risk include people who are drug users (injection or non-injection), homeless, men who have sex with men and incarcerated or recently incarcerated. Between Nov. 1, 2018, and July 19, 2019, there have been 225 hepatitis cases reported in our state. Of those, 56 percent (127/225) reported drug use, 14 percent (21/151 men) were men who have sex with men, 13 percent (29/225) were or had been incarcerated and 10 percent (22/225) were homeless.
A steady rise in hepatitis A cases since November 2018 led to DHEC defining the spread of the virus as an outbreak on May 13, 2019. Given the continuing spread of the disease, it is critical to further intensify efforts to vaccinate people in high-risk groups.
“It is challenging to control hepatitis A outbreaks if those in risk groups don’t seek or have access to immunization services,” physician and State Epidemiologist Dr. Linda Bell said. “Many people in high-risk groups cannot or will not visit DHEC clinics. We must go to them.
“We need organizations and individuals who offer services to these groups to help convince those who need it most to get vaccinated. We are asking those who operate shelters, drug treatment programs, soup kitchens, jails and prisons, and others who serve or advocate for people in these groups to partner with us.”
Service providers or advocates willing to help are asked to contact a DHEC consultant at (803) 898-0861.
Bell said it is also critical for the public to understand the true threat of the outbreak in South Carolina.
“A lot of attention has been given to food handlers who have tested positive, but this is not a foodborne outbreak and the concern is not with the restaurants or the food they serve,” she said.
The concern is with any individual, some of whom have been food handlers, who become infected with hepatitis A. People who work in various settings can and do contract the virus. Food handlers work in a setting in which customers could potentially be exposed to the virus. Out of an abundance of caution, DHEC is compelled to warn the public of any potential exposure.
However, the risk of the hepatitis A virus spreading from an infected employee to customers in a restaurant setting is low. Since the beginning of the outbreak in November 2018, there has been no report of anyone being infected by drinking or eating at a restaurant in South Carolina. Food handlers only represent a small percentage of reported hepatitis A cases in South Carolina. To date, only nine food handlers -- just 4 percent of reported cases -- have tested positive for hepatitis A.
One of those food handlers worked at the Huddle House in Camden.
Most people in the United States get hepatitis A by close person-to-person contact with someone who has the infection; this includes contact with a household member, through sexual contact, or by sharing personal items with an infected person.
Hepatitis A is a contagious liver disease. Most people who get hepatitis A feel sick for several weeks, many require hospitalization. Most people usually recover completely and do not have lasting liver damage. For more information on hepatitis A, visit the DHEC website or the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website.
The hepatitis A vaccine is widely available from health care providers and many pharmacies provide the vaccine without an appointment. DHEC is currently offering no-cost hepatitis A vaccines to individuals who are drug users, homeless, men who have sex with men or those who have a history of incarceration. Residents can schedule an appointment for a vaccination at their local health department by calling (855) 472-3432 or visiting www.scdhec.gov/HealthClinics.
The hepatitis A vaccine and other immunizations play a critical role in protecting children, families and communities by preventing and reducing the spread of infectious diseases. Whether it’s getting young children vaccinated against diseases such as whooping cough and measles, ensuring teens are protected against conditions such as HPV, or making sure those in your circle get vaccinated against the flu, immunizations help us stay healthy. DHEC offers immunization programs for eligible adults and children. Learn more at www.scdhec.gov/health/vaccinations/dhec-vaccine-programs-eligibility.