The largest outbreak of Hepatitis A in U.S. history is also the deadliest.
A hepatitis A outbreak centered in Southeastern Michigan has prompted federal and state health officials to urge people across Michigan to take precautions to prevent the spread of the virus, which can lead to severe health complications, liver failure, and in some cases death.
The outbreak started in August 2016 and as of May 23 the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services recorded 837 cases of hepatitis A infection, including 671 hospitalizations and 27 deaths.
Hepatitis A is a serious, highly contagious virus that targets the liver. It is found in the feces of infected people and spreads to others through contaminated food or water, sexual activity, or just by living with an infected person.
Symptoms of hepatitis A can include nausea and vomiting; abdominal and stomach pain; fatigue, fever, appetite loss, yellowing skin or eyes, dark urine, and joint pain, among others, and may take days or even weeks to appear.
Dr. Nicholas Gilpin, the chief medical officer of Beaumont Hospital in Grosse Pointe, Michigan, told the Detroit Free Press that hepatitis A is normally more of a nuisance than anything and that just about one percent of cases progress to more serious complications and liver failure, which would require a transplant to cure.
Dr. Jay Fielder, an epidemiologist and section manager for surveillance and infectious disease epidemiology with the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, told the Detroit Free Press that of the 837 people who have contracted hepatitis A in Michigan since August 2016, 80 percent have been hospitalized and 3.2 percent have died – a rate three times higher than what is normally seen in hepatitis A outbreaks.
“In all three of those jurisdictions, which have been most heavily impacted by these ongoing hepatitis outbreaks, the hospitalization rates have all been very high. Something is different and we’re trying to figure out what it is. It’s going to take a little while,” Dr. Fielder told the Detroit Free Press.
Symptoms of hepatitis A infection can take from 15 to 50 days from the onset of the disease to appear, complicating efforts to manage outbreaks and track down the source. Anyone in an outbreak area is encouraged to get a hepatitis A vaccination, especially if they ate a restaurant where infected workers were present or have a close physical presence with an infected person. It’s up to the individual to understand how hepatitis A can spread and evaluate their risk.
People who are vaccinated within 14 days of contracting the virus will usually not develop symptoms.
Michigan health officials have alerted the public about the detection of hepatitis A in dozens of restaurant workers in the metro Detroit area, warning they may have inadvertently spread it to diners. City, county, and state health officials are urging all restaurant workers to be vaccinated.