Pennsylvania declares a hepatitis A outbreak, with Centre County as one of the affected areas

Pennsylvania has declared a hepatitis A outbreak, with 171 cases confirmed in 36 counties since January 2018, the state Department of Health said Monday.

Centre County is counted among those 36, with 1-10 cases. Philadelphia is the hardest-hit area with 31-50 cases, followed by Allegheny County with 11-30. Although Philadelphia and Allegheny counties have see the most cases so far, the number of cases throughout the rest of the state have also been increasing, Secretary of Health Rachel Levine said in a release.

“We are taking this action now to be proactive in our response to treating Pennsylvanians suffering from this illness and prevent it from spreading,” she said. “The best way to prevent hepatitis A is through vaccination.”

Caused by the “highly contagious” hepatitis A virus, the liver infection is spread from person to person when putting something in their mouth that has been contaminated with the feces of an infected person, according to the state DOH. For that reason, the DOH says hepatitis A is typically spread through food and water, particularly in locations where there are poor sanitary conditions or proper hand-washing techniques are not being observed. The virus can also be spread through sex.

Casual contact with somebody with hepatitis, such as sitting next to or hugging them, will not spread the virus, the DOH says.

Symptoms include fever, loss of appetite, nausea, vomiting, stomach pain, dark urine, light stool and jaundice. Some people, particularly children, however, may not exhibit any clinical symptoms.

Hepatitis is diagnosed with a blood test. Although there are no specific treatments or hepatitis A, the DOH encourages people with symptoms to contact their doctor, get plenty of rest, avoid alcohol and keep hydrated.

In addition to Pennsylvania, neighboring states Ohio and West Virginia have seen 2,000 cases. By declaring an outbreak, Pennsylvania is eligible for federal funds to purchase additional vaccinations, the DOH says.

“It’s hard to know for sure why we are experiencing an outbreak of hepatitis A,” Levine said. “We do know that the commonwealth has seen an increase of diseases like hepatitis C and HIV because of the opioid epidemic.”

Hepatitis A vaccines are recommended for all children, travelers to certain countries and those with liver disease or at high risk for infection or complications. In light of the outbreak, the DOH also recommends vaccinations for those experiencing homelessness, people who use illegal drugs and men who have sex with men.

The virus can also be prevented by washing hands after going to the bathroom or changing a diaper, and before preparing food.

People looking for more information on hepatitis A can contact their primary care provider, or call the state Department of Health at 877-PA-HEALTH.