Citrus County continues to rank among the worst in Florida in new potentially deadly hepatitis A cases, adding four new patients last week.
The new cases tie Citrus County in second place with Santa Rosa and Volusia counties. There have been 108 hepatitis A cases in Citrus County this year, including two deaths because of the disease. Both Duval and Lee counties had six new cases each between Nov. 24 to Nov. 30. The new cases contributed to Florida’s 3,163 total cases this year.
Local health care officials warn there’s no indication the transmittable disease will slow.
“We’re definitely not going to see this decrease anytime soon,” said Audrey Stasko, spokeswoman for the Florida Department of Health in Citrus County. “I can’t predict when we’ll see the end of this outbreak.”
Citrus County ranks 11th for the total number of cases this year. The top ranking counties are Pasco, Pinellas and Volusia with 408, 377 and 285 cases this year, respectively.
Citrus County sees two to four new cases every week, according to local department of health records.
Hepatitis A is a contagious disease that can attack the liver and is spread, in part, by oral ingestion of fecal matter. That can happen, for example, if people do not wash their hands thoroughly after using the restroom.
With the number of hepatitis A cases growing exponentially, Department of Health Secretary Scott Rivkees issued a public-health emergency in August and encouraged vaccination, especially for Floridians who are considered at risk or vulnerable to the virus once infected.
Citrus County health officials have given out 3,553 free hepatitis A vaccinations this year.
Stasko said the local department of health continues to offer public outreach vaccinations at designated places and times, but is now focusing on localized pockets where there have been greater number of hepatitis A cases or drug use, which is commonly associated with acquiring the disease.
The health department also offers the free vaccines at the county jail, as well as the DOH facility at 3700 W. Sovereign Path, Lecanto, but health department officials are requesting only at-risk people request the free vaccinations.
The next public outreach vaccinations will be offered 4 to 7 p.m. Friday at the Citrus County Fire Rescue Station 7, 800 N. Rock Crusher Road, Crystal River. But again, department of health officials request that only at-risk individuals come for the vaccinations.
Stasko said much of the local DOH’s effort is trying to get at-risk people to accept the free vaccines. Officials also target neighborhoods with high rates and go house to house and knock on front doors offering the vaccinations.
A person becomes immune to the virus after being infected, or after receiving the hepatitis A vaccine.
Aside from vaccination, spread of the disease can be prevented with good hand hygiene, which includes thoroughly washing hands after using the bathroom, changing diapers, and before preparing or eating food, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Unlike many other viruses that cause human disease, the hepatitis A virus can survive months outside the human body. High temperatures, such as boiling or cooking food or liquids for at least one minute, will kill the virus, according to the CDC. Freezing temperatures do not.
Symptoms usually appear four weeks after an initial exposure, but can appear as early as two weeks and as late as seven weeks after exposure. Symptoms usually develop over a period of several days, according to the CDC. Carriers can be asymptomatic and still contagious.
Symptoms usually last fewer than two months, although about 10% of people with hepatitis A will have symptoms for as long as six months.
While anyone can contract hepatitis A, individuals who are considered most at risk, according to the FDOH and CDC, are:
• those who are experiencing homelessness;
• intravenous and non-intravenous drug users;
• men who have sex with other men;
• individuals in an emergency room or other acute-care setting, after being administered an opioid antagonist, such as naloxone;
• individuals working with homeless persons or intravenous drug users outside of health care settings; and,
• first responders.