The state of Florida has now declared the hepatitis A outbreak a 'public health emergency.'
A person could also contract this virus through unprotected oral or anal sex.
The hepatitis A virus triggers symptoms similar to those of the flu, which are relatively mild and usually last no longer than 2 months. Sometimes, however, the virus can affect liver health to the extent that it may threaten liver function.
Throughout Europe and the United States, there have recently been few cases of this disease, since hepatitis A is preventable through vaccination.
In the past year, however, various regions of the United States have witnessed a steep rise in the number of hepatitis A cases. Now, the state of Florida has declared this viral disease a public health emergency.
A call for vaccination against hepatitis A
Over the past year, officials have recorded 2,586 new cases of hepatitis A, of which 72% required hospitalization. As many of 65 new cases occurred in the past 2 weeks alone.
This is a steep increase from the year before when there was a total of 548 cases of hepatitis A throughout the entire year. Most of these cases occurred in adults.
"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," announces the Florida Surgeon General Dr. Scott Rivkees in an official statement.
"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."
Florida Surgeon General Dr. Scott Rivkees
It is unclear why the cases of hepatitis A have increased at such an alarming rate, but officials are looking into the matter. A health emergency will also allow them to invest more money into testing and treatment of the disease.
This is in accordance with the Florida Statute 381.00315(1)(c), which defines a "public health emergency" as "any occurrence, or threat thereof [...] which results or may result in substantial injury or harm to the public health," and which allows the State Health Officer to "take actions that are necessary to protect the public health."
In the meantime, state officials advise individuals to get vaccinated against the hepatitis A virus and to maintain good personal hygiene habits.
The lieutenant governor of Florida, Jeanette Nunez, tells Florida inhabitants, in a post on Twitter, that she and other officials "urge vaccination and stress the importance of washing your hands regularly."
Dr. Eugene Schiff, director for liver diseases at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine, FL, has commented on the outbreak in Florida. He notes that homelessness may be an important factor at play in the current health emergency.
"Homelessness is a big issue throughout the country and in Florida, and they are at higher risk to spread hepatitis A around. It is more epidemic in the homeless community," claims Dr. Schiff.
He also emphasizes that the disease is "entirely preventable" through vaccination, noting that "[i]t is not that this is a virulent strain, there is just a larger risk if people haven't been vaccinated."
Dr. Neil Gupta, who is branch chief of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's (CDC) Division of Viral Hepatitis in Atlanta, GA, also suggests that homelessness increases the risk of infection. He argues that state policy-makers should make sure that the groups most at risk receive the anti-hepatitis A vaccine.
"The most effective response measures are to increase vaccinations to the at risk groups through coordinated, targeted vaccination efforts to stop the outbreak," notes Dr. Gupta.