17 dead and 49 suspected sick after Hepatitis A outbreak in major city

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A liver disease that primarily affects the homeless, the Hepatitis A virus is typically spread when an uninfected (and unvaccinated) person ingests food or water that is contaminated with the feces of an infected person.

The virus has been running rampant in California cities, from San Diego to Santa Cruz, and has been called a public health emergency with 17 people dead as of Tuesday. Dr. Wilma Wooten, the region’s top public health official, said there are 49 suspected hepatitis cases and one death still under investigation.

A week ago, there were 44 cases, and the number of investigations has bounced from roughly 30 to 50 at any given time for several months, according to Wooten. She told the county Board of Supervisors that the overall case count jumped to 461 Tuesday, with 315 hospitalizations since November and 17 deaths.

“Until the numbers start dropping, we won’t have a clear indication of whether we have turned the corner or not,” Wooten said.

Labs at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta have confirmed current case counts. Wooten said her office is waiting to hear from the CDC whether or not an 18th death was caused by one of the hepatitis strains responsible for the outbreak in San Diego and several other California communities.

The health department requested assistance from the CDC back in May. Dr. Nick Yphantides, the health department’s medical director, said the CDC will send representatives to San Diego next week for a planning meeting with local public health staffers.

San Diego County has seen a major uptick in hepatitis A vaccinations since a group of local government and healthcare workers, led by Yphantides, embarked on a public education campaign last week. At-risk groups, such as the homeless, are now being encouraged to frequently wash their hands and get vaccinated.

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