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Public health agencies warned against complacency in hepatitis A outbreak


The hepatitis A outbreak in Michigan has plateaued, but it's still an outbreak.

Eden Wells is the chief medical executive for the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services.

"We're not putting on the brakes," says Wells. "We need to keep going. One of the issues with hepatitis A is it can stick around and persist as an epidemic, for some time after we're been pursuing control measures."

The control measures include getting at-risk people vaccinated, as well as public education campaigns to raise awareness.

Especially at-risk groups are those who use illegal drugs, homeless or sometimes homeless people, people in jail or recently released from jail, and men who have sex with men. About half those infected have used illegal drugs.

Wells says so far, it appears there is nothing particularly virulent about the strain of hepatitis A that is responsible for the outbreak in Michigan. Rather, the virus is spreading more easily on the back of the opioid crisis.

Since August of 2016, 865 people in Michigan have contracted a strain of hepatitis A that spreads from person to person rather than through food. Nearly 700 have been hospitalized and 27 have died.

Wells says county health agencies are doing a good job getting at-risk people vaccinated, which is why the crisis has plateaued. But she wants everyone to stay vigilant and keep working hard on public education and vaccination programs.

"August is one of our warmest months of the year, and tends to be where hepatitis A normally, even outside of an outbreak, would have more activity," she says. 

Wells says there appears to be enough hepatitis A vaccine available nationally to give anyone who needs it  at least one dose, which provides up to 90% immunity, although a second and third dose is recommended.

The majority of cases have been in Detroit (172), other parts of Wayne County (145), Macomb County (221), and Oakland County (119).  

There have been 33 cases in St. Clair County, Ingham County has seen 26 cases, Genesee, 24, 18 in Washtenaw and Monroe Counties, and 15 in Shiawassee County.  A number of other counties have seen a handful of cases.

This outbreak of hepatitis A is being spread person-to-person, mainly through contact with feces, and not through contaminated food.  

The strain of hepatitis A responsible for Michigan's outbreak is distinct from the variants causing outbreaks in Kentucky, West Virginia, and California.

Tracy Samilton covers energy and transportation, including the auto industry and the business response to climate change for Michigan Public. She began her career at Michigan Public as an intern, where she was promptly “bitten by the radio bug,” and never recovered.
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