San Diego Hepatitis A Death Toll Reaches 20

Tuesday, October 31, 2017
By City News Service, Matt Hoffman
Credit: Matt Hoffman/KPBS
Above: San Diego Fire-Rescue paramedics administer Hepatitis A vaccinations in the lobby of Serving Seniors downtown, Oct. 31, 2017.

The death toll in an almost year-long hepatitis A outbreak in the San Diego region has reached 20, county health officials reported Tuesday.

The number is one higher than what was reported by the county Health and Human Services Agency last week.

From the beginning of the outbreak in late November last year until Thursday, 536 cases of hepatitis A were reported to the HHSA.

The rate of new cases has been falling for a few weeks now, though the county public health officer, Dr. Wilma Wooten, has warned that the disease, which attacks the liver, has a long incubation period, so the numbers will likely continue to grow in the coming weeks.

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Nearly two-thirds of the victims have been either homeless, users of illicit drugs or both, Wooten said. Hepatitis A cases linked to the San Diego outbreak have been diagnosed in both Arizona and Colorado.

According to the HHSA, around 84,000 hepatitis A vaccinations have been administered by county staff or partner organizations.

HHSA Director Nick Macchione said the county has so far spent $4 million on trying to curtail hepatitis A, which is usually transmitted by touching objects or eating food that someone with the virus has handled or by having sex with an infected person.

San Diego Fire-Rescue said they have administered 81 hepatitis A vaccinations, part of the department’s new mobile vaccination program.

For the last two weeks, an SDFD registered nurse, a captain and a paramedic have been walking city streets, offering the vaccine to the at-risk population.

“We’re trying to identify the high-risk populations that require the first vaccination, then we’ll refer them to 2-1-1,” said SDFD captain Michael de Guzman.

The paramedics get a list from the county with specific locations to offer the vaccination.

For the last two weeks the SDFD teams have been working mostly downtown, but said they plan to move to the South Bay soon.

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The disease does not always cause symptoms, but for those who do, they could experience fever, fatigue, nausea, loss of appetite, yellowing of the eyes, stomach pain, vomiting, dark urine, pale stools and diarrhea, according to the agency.

The county and city of San Diego have taken several steps to address the outbreak, including the spraying of a sanitizing formula on streets and sidewalks, the placement of portable hand-washing stations and restrooms in areas where the homeless congregate, and the stepped-up immunization campaign.