Hepatitis A infographic

The Florida Surgeon General Friday declared a public health emergency due to the continued rise in hepatitis A cases throughout the state. The declaration also names Citrus County, as well as 16 other counties, as critically impacted by the potentially deadly disease.

There have been 27 hepatitis A cases in Citrus County this year through July 27, according to Florida Department of Health records. That’s an increase of 17 since May 9. There were no cases in 2017 and 2018.

There have not been any deaths in the county due to infections, said FDOH in Citrus County spokeswoman Audrey Stasko.

The public health emergency follows a public health advisory issued by the state and focuses Florida’s health care efforts on vaccinations and educating the public to the nature and danger of the disease.

The emergency announcement also paves the way for Florida to request help from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Some of that help includes financial assistance and vaccines, Stasko said.

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.

There have been 2,034 reported cases throughout Florida since January 2019. In 2018, 548 cases were reported — and that's a sharp contrast to 2014, when there were only 106 cases in all of Florida.

There have been 221 deaths nationwide due to hepatitis A since 2016. Of those, 28 were in Florida.

Stasko said the DOH in Citrus County continues to offer free hepatitis A vaccinations to individuals at high risk of contracting hepatitis A and individuals who are at heightened risk for suffering serious complications from contracting hepatitis A.

“If you feel you’re in one of the high risk groups, you can come to the health department and get your vaccination for free,” she said.

Stasko said there is no clear explanation for the increase in hepatitis A cases.

Citrus County’s DOH is 3700 W. Sovereign Path, Lecanto. The department’s telephone number is 352-527-0068. 

Hepatitis A is a highly contagious virus transmitted primarily by eating contaminated food, through close personal and sexual contact, or through drug use, according to the CDC.

Hepatitis A is found in the feces of an infected person. The virus is transmitted if an infected person’s fecal matter makes its way into the mouth of another person, according to the CDC.

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 CDC.

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 percent of people with hepatitis A will have symptoms for as long as six months.

In Surgeon General Scott Rivkees’ Friday announcement, he reminded Floridians that a public health emergency is not a Florida state of emergency, but rather the public health emergency allows the Department of Health to take actions necessary to protect public health.

"I am declaring this Public Health Emergency as a proactive step to appropriately alert the public to this serious illness and prevent further spread of hepatitis A in our state," Rivkees said in a news release. "The best way to prevent hepatitis A is through vaccination. It is important that we vaccinate as many high-risk individuals as possible in order to achieve herd immunity. I will continue to work with Governor DeSantis and Lieutenant Governor Jeanette Nuñez to take proactive steps to protect the health of Florida's residents and visitors.”

To keep the public informed, the DOH also created a public website at FloridaHealth.gov/hepa with infection rate information and steps people can take to reduce their chances of contracting the disease.

Symptoms of hepatitis A include: jaundice (yellowing skin and whites of eyes); fever; diarrhea; fatigue; loss of appetite; nausea and vomiting; stomach pain; dark-colored urine; and pale or clay-colored stool.

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Contact Chronicle reporter Fred Hiers at fred.hiers@chronicleonline.com or 352-397-5914.

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