This summer, the Florida hepatitis outbreak has already affected hundreds of people. According to the Florida Department of Health, 77 new cases of Hepatitis A have been confirmed just last week. This means that there has been a 300% rise in the number of Hepatitis A cases compared to last year.
This rounds the total number of Hepatitis A cases to 1,636 as of Saturday, making it the highest number seen in the last five years. In 2018, only 548 cases of the infection were reported. However, the four years prior to this didn’t even crest 300 cases, making this the worst outbreak in recent memory.
Commonly known as Hep A, this infection is typically spread through contaminated food or water or person-to-person contact. Once it’s in the body, it wreaks havoc on the liver, eventually leading to chronic disease or a compromised immune system if left untreated. Despite the high levels of incidence, however, only four deaths have been confirmed in Florida so far, all of whom were over the age of 50. The most recent victim was 75-year-old Colin Holmes Jr. of Martin County.
Though most of the current Florida hepatitis outbreak cases are centralized in Tampa, more and more cases are being confirmed in southern Florida where the cause of the outbreak has yet to be discovered. In an effort to deter the outbreak from spreading, Florida health officials have also given out more than 4,000 doses of Hep A vaccine per week to homeless shelters, county jails, and communities with high levels of drug use.
But officials know that targeting at-risk communities may not be enough to stop the outbreak from spreading.
“Maybe we need to look at things more broadly to see if there is something we are not looking at currently that would be driving up those numbers,” notes Florida Lt. Gov. Jeanette Nuñez.
Officials are also encouraging restaurant workers to wash their hands and report any cases of Hep A that they come across. If we needed any more excuse to avoid fast food restaurants, a Hardee’s restaurant in South Carolina has become the most recent restaurant to expose its customers to the liver infection. As the sixth restaurant in SC to test positive for Hepatitis A, ditching fast food to protect your teeth from tartar and your liver from chronic disease might be a good measure on top of getting vaccinated.
But food-borne Hepatitis A cases have also been reported in Palm Beach County over the last few weeks, making vaccination and cleanliness efforts more important than ever. In some areas throughout the United States, health officials have even set up showers in homeless communities to deter the spread of infection.
While giving Hepatitis A vaccinations to children has become the norm in the United States, there are still countless at-risk populations who have not received the vaccination. The CDC notes that it is among these individuals where halting the virus is most important. As more people opt out of vaccination, the Florida hepatitis outbreak will likely continue to spread.
If you notice any of the following symptoms, be sure to visit a hospital or an urgent care clinic near you for prompt healthcare:
- Joint pain
- Sudden nausea and/or vomiting
- Stomach cramps or abdominal pain
- Clay-colored bowel movements or other abnormal appearances
- Loss of appetite
- Dark urine
- Jaundice (a common sign of liver dysfunction)
Luckily, an estimated 85% of urgent care centers are open seven days each week, making care easily accessible for many potentially infected individuals. Though the infection is very symptomatic, medical attention and rest can help clear up the infection and prevent it from causing long-term damage.
You should also be sure to maintain a proper health routine while you’re traveling to a new destination. Even though more than $300 billion is spent on travel in the United States each year, many forget to wash their hands after coming into contact with new germs.
According to CBS Miami, Pasco County has the highest incidence rate in Florida at 314 confirmed cases. It is followed by Pinellas county at 287 and Orange Country at 129.
In the meantime, the best thing you can do to prevent infection is to get vaccinated and maintain healthy cleaning habits