Pa. Health Department declares hepatitis A outbreak, cause unknown

In this Tuesday, Feb. 12, 2019 photo Worcester Police officer Angel Rivera, right, returns a license to an unidentified man as Rivera asks if he has been tested for Hepatitis A at the entrance to a tent where the man spent the night in a wooded area, in Worcester, Mass. (Steven Senne/AP Photo)

In this Tuesday, Feb. 12, 2019 photo Worcester Police officer Angel Rivera, right, returns a license to an unidentified man as Rivera asks if he has been tested for Hepatitis A at the entrance to a tent where the man spent the night in a wooded area, in Worcester, Mass. (Steven Senne/AP Photo)

The Pennsylvania Department of Health has declared an outbreak of hepatitis A, with Philadelphia and Pittsburgh the hardest-hit regions.

There have been 171 cases reported since January 2018, said Health Department Secretary Dr. Rachel Levine. The viral liver infection is spread person-to-person through feces, with symptoms ranging from mild to life-threatening.

“The number of cases already this year is greater than 60, and that is double of that last year at the same point in time,” Levine said.

Past hepatitis A outbreaks were often traced back to one specific contamination point, such as food at a restaurant, Levine said. However, this outbreak doesn’t fit that profile. Experts including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are still working to learn what caused it.

Opioid addiction, which remains at a crisis level in Pennsylvania, may be playing a role in spreading the disease, Levine said. People who are homeless, people who use intravenous drugs like heroin, and men who have sex with men are the most at-risk.

“It’s hard to know for sure why we are experiencing an outbreak of hepatitis A,” Levine said. “We do know that the Commonwealth has seen an increase of diseases like hepatitis C and HIV because of the opioid epidemic.”

While Philadelphia and Allegheny counties have seen the highest concentrations of cases, this strand of hepatitis A has turned up in 36 Pennsylvania counties.

Similar hepatitis A outbreaks have also recently been reported in West Virginia, Ohio, and other states. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention identified 23 states reporting recent hepatitis A outbreaks on its website.

Levine noted, a vaccination, which is now commonly given to children, will prevent hepatitis A exposure. The department has created a map of clinics around the state that provide the vaccination.

By declaring an outbreak, the state can tap into federal funds to get additional vaccines if needed, Levine said.

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