Health officials: Vermont in early stage of hepatitis outbreak
BURLINGTON — The Vermont Department of Health on Thursday, Jan. 16, reported a statewide outbreak of hepatitis A, joining 30 other states including New Hampshire and Massachusetts.
Health Commissioner Mark Levine, MD, said the outbreak here is in the early stages, but that case number trends have prompted the department to make the formal declaration.
“We’ve been anticipating an outbreak of hepatitis A cases here from monitoring how this has evolved in other states,” said Dr. Levine. “We are working closely with health care providers to ensure that Vermonters are vaccinated, and with our community partners to get the word out to people who are at high risk of infection, some of whom can be difficult to reach.”
In 2019, Vermont had 12 cases of acute hepatitis A virus (HAV) infection, compared with the previous five-year average of thre cases per year. Of the 12 cases, 58% were hospitalized. Many Vermont counties have reported cases, with most in the southern part of the state.
Hepatitis A is a liver infection caused by the Hepatitis A virus. Symptoms can range from a mild infection to a more serious illness, including liver failure and death. The virus is generally spread by person-to-person contact, primarily through the fecal-oral route. Thorough handwashing and sanitary practices are important to help prevent it from spreading.
The majority of cases in Vermont and nationally are among people with these risk factors:
• people with a history of drug use
• people who are experiencing unstable housing or homelessness
• individuals who are currently or who were recently incarcerated
• people with chronic liver disease including cirrhosis, hepatitis B, or hepatitis C
• men who have sex with men.
The best way to prevent hepatitis A infection is to get vaccinated. In addition, because of the nature of the virus, access to sanitation, restroom facilities and handwashing stations is important for preventing its spread.
Dr. Levine said it’s very important that people who are at higher risk of infection get vaccinated to help prevent spread of the virus. “Hepatitis A is a vaccine-preventable disease, and a single dose provides 95% protection. The vaccine is safe and is now recommended during childhood.”
Case numbers are also up for Hepatitis B. Vermont is watching this as well, because many of the same groups are at risk.
Hepatitis B is spread by exposure to infected blood, such as from sharing needles, syringes or other drug preparation equipment, by contact with blood or skin wounds and sores of an infected person, and by having sex with a partner who engages in high-risk behaviors. Acute infection is a short-term illness that happens within the first six months after exposure to the virus. It can lead to chronic infection and can cause mild illness with few or no symptoms, or more serious conditions requiring hospitalization.
There have been nine cases of acute hepatitis B virus (HBV) infection, compared with the previous five-year average of fewer than three cases per year.
The Health Department has been offering free hepatitis A vaccine clinics in places that serve high-risk individuals, such as shelters, syringe services programs, and meal sites. Clinics have also been held in all Vermont correctional facilities.
Vermonters without insurance can contact their Local Health Office for information about free vaccine clinics.
People are encouraged to contact their health care provider to receive the two or three dose Hepatitis B vaccine series. This vaccine is also available at Local Health Offices to anyone under the age of 65.
More information about hepatitis online at healthvermont.gov/hepatitis.
Find your Local Health Office online at healthvermont.gov/local.