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SALT LAKE CITY — A national outbreak of hepatitis A has taken root in Utah, leading Utah public health officials to warn of increased risk to all residents, not just for high-risk populations such as the homeless or drug users.
"Yes, we're dealing with an outbreak," Dr. Dagmar Vitek, medical director of the Salt Lake County Department of Health, said Tuesday.
Since May, 87 hepatitis A cases that can be traced to an national outbreak have been reported in Utah, according Utah Department of Health epidemiologist Jeff Eason. That's compared to an average of about five cases or less per year in the state.
"We … found the first case in early May and knew it was associated with the national outbreak at the time," Eason said.
He was referring to San Diego and Detroit, where more than 1,100 infections in those areas caused 41 deaths as of earlier this month. No deaths related to the outbreak have occurred in Utah, but 60 percent of the people who have contracted hepatitis in the state have been hospitalized, Eason said.
"That's quite a bit higher than we would expect in a typical outbreak," he said, blaming other health issues that "could make them at risk."
Salt Lake County, the center of the outbreak with 66 cases, hasn't seen double-digit hepatitis A cases since the late 1990s, said county health department spokesman Nicholas Rupp. There have also been 14 cases in Utah County.
A two-shot hepatitis A vaccine is shown to be more than 99 percent effective in preventing the disease for 20 to 25 years, according to Rupp. The hepatitis A vaccine has been required for all students entering kindergarten since 2002, he said, but for people who entered school before then, "that vaccine was not required at any point in their lives, most likely."
More than 7,000 vaccinations have been given out in a push to curb the outbreak, Eason said. Public health workers have delivered those vaccinations in places with high concentrations of homeless people and recreational drug users, including Pioneer Park, homeless shelters, various places along the Jordan River, drug treatment centers and syringe exchange locations, Vitek said.
"We're actually going to them," she said. "We really sort of have to have a completely different approach."
People most at risk of contracting hepatitis A are either homeless, actively using drugs or incarcerated, according to Vitek. But she added the county is trying to inform all people that those groups disproportionately "are using public areas" and that "there's some overlap between these groups and the general population."
Hepatitis A can be spread through even miniscule amounts of feces from an infected person, which means it is frequently spread through contaminated food or drink. A person is also more susceptible to infection it they don't wash their hands after using the restroom, Vitek said.
"You can protect yourself by washing your hands and getting the vaccine," she said.