Three people in San Luis Obispo County were recently diagnosed with Hepatitis A following their attendance at a private catered event.
That county’s Public Health Department is actively investigating the cases and contacting others who may have been exposed to the serious virus. In this case, the exposure likely occurred at the event on May 3 and the three cases appear to be linked to a common source.
The risk to the general public, other than those who attended the event, remains low, according to the SLO Public Health Department. They do not appear to be linked, the department noted, to recent state and national outbreaks among people experiencing homelessness or people who are illicit drug users.
It’s important to understand that Hepatitis A is a contagious liver infection caused by a virus. Those exposed can feel mildly sick for a few weeks, to having a severe illness that lasts several months. Hepatitis A in the U.S. usually spreads when a person unknowingly ingests the virus from objects, food, or drinks contaminated by small, undetected amounts of stool from an infected person.
For those concerned about possible exposure, the symptoms for older children and adults can appear quickly, and can include:
- Loss of appetite
- Abdominal pain
- Dark urine
- Clay-colored stools
- Joint paint
- Jaundice, or yellowing of skin and eyes
Most children younger than age 6 do not present symptoms. Hepatitis can also be caused by heavy alcohol use, toxins, some medications, and certain medical conditions, according to the Centers for Disease Control. If symptoms occur, they usually start appearing four weeks after exposure, but can occur as early as two and as late as seven weeks after exposure. Symptoms usually develop over a period of several days.
There are also viruses called hepatitis B and C. They can cause similar symptoms, but have different causes and affect the liver differently.
The CDC indicates that Hepatitis A is usually a short-term infection and does not become chronic. Hepatitis B and hepatitis C can also begin as short-term, acute infections, but in some people, the virus remains in the body, resulting in chronic disease and long-term liver problems. There are vaccines to prevent hepatitis A and hepatitis B; however, there is no vaccine for hepatitis C.
For people such as those in San Luis Obispo who were exposed to Hepatitis A, they may feel sick for several weeks, but they usually recover completely and do not have lasting liver damage. In rare cases, hepatitis A can cause liver failure and death; this is more common in people older than 50 and in people with other liver diseases.
Since the Hepatitis A vaccine became available in 1995, cases in the U.S. have declined by more than 95 percent. Still, recent statistics indicate there were about 4,000 cases in the U.S. in 2016.
Because Hepatitis A is often spread through contamination of food, it’s important to understand that it can happen at any point in the process -- growing, harvesting, processing, handling, and even after cooking, and even in frozen food.
Although the CDC indicates that anyone can get hepatitis A, in the U.S. certain groups of people are at higher risk, such as:
- People with direct contact with someone who has Hepatitis A
- Travelers to countries where Hepatitis A is common
- Men who have sexual contact with men
- People who use drugs, both injection and non-injection drugs
- Household members or caregivers of a recent adoptee from countries where Hepatitis A is common.
- People with clotting factor disorders, such as hemophilia
If you believe you may have Hepatitis A or have been exposed, call your health professional or local health department.
The CDC suggests that unvaccinated people who have been exposed recently (within 2 weeks) to the Hepatitis A virus should get the Hepatitis A vaccine or a shot of immune globulin to prevent severe illness. To treat the symptoms of hepatitis A, doctors usually recommend rest, adequate nutrition, and fluids. Some people will need medical care in a hospital. It can take a few months before people with Hepatitis A begin to feel better.