A public health alert about an outbreak of hepatitis A among the homeless and people addicted to drugs went out from the state to local health officials Monday after 65 cases of the virus were diagnosed, leading to one death so far.
The Department of Pubic Health encouraged local health departments to work with clinics and groups serving the homeless and those with substance use disorders, especially people injecting drugs, to educate those populations on the risks and make vaccines available.
A call between the DPH and local health boards has been scheduled for Wednesday.
“We have seen a spike in cases of hepatitis A, with outbreaks being reported in at least 10 other states in similar populations, constituting thousands of cases nationwide,” said Public Health Commissioner Monica Bharel, in a statement. “As part of our statewide response here in Massachusetts, we are reaching out to all local health departments to encourage and assist their efforts to provide education and vaccinations for people at risk.”
Hepatitis A is a viral infection that affects the liver and can cause fever, fatigue, loss of appetite, stomach pain and nausea, among other symptoms.
More than 20 cases were diagnosed during the first two weeks of September. Forty-five percent, or 30, of the cases detected in Massachusetts so far were in Boston, but DPH said the number of cases outside the city in Southeast and Greater Boston metro area was increasing. Many of those infected have also showed signs of hepatitis C, a blood-borne infection common among intravenous drug users that can exacerbate symptoms, health officials said.
According to the DPH and the Boston Public Health Commission, hepatitis A is commonly transmitted through contact with food or drinks contaminated by stool, making those living in unsanitary conditions particularly vulnerable.
The BPHC said the spike in case in the city is “not linked to infected persons who have traveled outside of Boston or contaminated food or water.”
The agency is recommending vaccinations for at-risk populations and those who may come in contact with at-risk populations, and said there are “intensive efforts” underway to prevent the spread of the virus.
“Vaccination and good hygiene, especially washing hands with soap & warm water, are the most effective ways to prevent the spread of hepatitis A. We are working with partners to directly reach at-risk populations and provide vaccinations, to reduce the spread of hepatitis A,” said Dr. Jenifer Jaeger, director of the Infectious Disease Bureau at the BPHC.