COLUMBIA, S.C. - What began as a spike in reported hepatitis A cases in Aiken County has now spread to other parts of South Carolina, prompting public health officials to declare a statewide outbreak.
Since Nov. 1, South Carolina has recorded 86 reported cases of the contagious disease. State Epidemiologist Linda Bell said Monday that's more than four times what state officials normally expect to see. Over the last 10 years, South Carolina averaged 19 reported cases of hepatitis A annually.
Most of the new cases have occurred in Aiken County, and almost half of all cases involve individuals who reported drug use, Bell said.
Still, the general population needn't be overly concerned, she said.
"But we are seeing cases higher that what we expect to see," Bell said. "And so it's important for us to do our prevention efforts early to reach those high-risk groups, get them vaccinated ... so that we can prevent" a severe outbreak.
The State reports the Department of Health and Environmental Control is offering no-cost vaccines to high risk groups including drug users, homeless, formerly incarcerated and sexually-active gay men.
Additionally, health officials recommend all children get two doses of the vaccine as part of their immunization schedule.
Of the 86 reported cases in South Carolina, 59 have led to hospitalization and one resulted in death, the DHEC said.
Hepatitis is a disease characterized by inflammation of the liver. It comes in many forms, including hepatitis A, B and C. As a result, individuals with chronic liver disease, like cirrhosis, are at increased risk of complications if infected and should be vaccinated.
The virus-borne infection can be prevented by vaccination and is usually transmitted person-to-person through consumption of contaminated food or water, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Antibodies produced in response to hepatitis A infection last for life and protect against reinfection.
Infection usually results in sickness in two to six weeks after exposure. Symptoms include fatigue, loss of appetite, stomach pain, nausea, and yellowing of the eyes and skin. Symptoms usually resolve within two months of infection, according to the CDC.
State public health officials in February declared an outbreak in Aiken County after an employee at a second restaurant in Aiken tested positive for the virus, the DHEC said. Bell, though, stressed transmission by food or beverage is uncommon.
"Most transmission in the United States is through person-to-person contact," Bell said. "Good hygiene - diligently washing your hands - is a good way to prevent hepatitis A, as well as not sharing personal items," including drug equipment, she said, adding the state has received reports of hepatitis A from people using various drugs, "everything from marijuana to meth."
Residents can schedule an appointment for a vaccination at their local health department by calling 855-472-3432 or going to http://bit.ly/2HhEsM8 .
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