SEBRING – Hepatitis A is on the rise with outbreaks in several Florida counties. So far, Highlands has stayed clear of the contagious and potentially deadly disease, according to Pamela Crain, Florida Health Department Divisions director for Highlands County.

Just two counties over, in Martin County, there has been a serious outbreak of hepatitis A. The liver disease is passed from person to person via oral-fecal transmission. A major contributor to Hepatitis is poor hand washing and food prep. which is why restaurant employees can spread the disease quickly. The virus can be spread through contaminated food and water or with close contact such as sexual activity. Homelessness is another contributing factor to catching the disease.

Doctors are required by law to report cases of hepatitis A when diagnosed. According to the DOH website, the incidence of cases has risen steadily over the last five years. In 2014, the DOH reported 106 people diagnosed. The cases rose over the ensuing years and rose sharply in 2017. In 2016 and 2017, the cases doubled and nearly doubled respectively. In 2018, there were 549 confirmed cases. So far, in 2019, there have been 690 cases.

In Martin County, there have been 19 people diagnosed with Hepatitis A since January. During that same time frame, 14 people have had to be hospitalized. There have been three deaths due to hepatitis A complications.

Normally, the disease can be prevented by a vaccine; 97% of those diagnosed did not have a vaccination against the virus. A vaccine can be given to someone who has been exposed within 14 days to get protection against the disease.

It is important to understand that hepatitis A is a vaccine-preventable liver disease. If you believe you may have hepatitis A, please consult with your doctor, especially if you have underlying health problems such as chronic liver or kidney disease or a weak immune system.

The vaccine should be given to any student who is enrolled in public school. The vaccine is given in a series of two shots, given six months apart.

The investigating agencies will determine if the people who were diagnosed had any of the same friends, contacts and have dined in the same restaurants in order to narrow down the source of the disease. In Martin County, they have not found any similarities yet.

Florida’s Department of Health is working alongside Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to find the sources of the outbreaks to prevent hepatitis from spreading even further. The lieutenant governor and other politicians promised to investigate the outbreaks at an April 12 news conference.

“This is a CSI-level investigation that has to be done,” Senate Health Police Chairwoman Gayle Harrell said.

Florida Health Department has created a website to educate the public. Learn more at Floridahealth.gov or 844-CALL-DOH or 844-225-5364.

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