With the busy holiday season underway, many people will be out visiting friends and family but also spending time in more public places like stores and restaurants. All of the above increases the risk of catching a cold or worse, as the Hepatitis A outbreak continues across Southeast Michigan.

Since August 2016, there have been 630 reported cases and 20 deaths linked to the virus across the region. 517 of those cases required hospitalization. Six cases and one death are attributed to Livingston County, and all but one required hospitalization. The virus appears to be spreading through direct person-to-person contact but has a lengthy incubation period and a wide range of potential sources so local health officials say it’s a pretty serious situation. Officials say this particular strain also appears to be more aggressive, with more people being hospitalized. The Livingston County Health Department has also receive state funding to hire additional nurses and more support staff to conduct additional outreach and expanded vaccine clinics for a targeted population considered more high risk for contracting Hepatitis A.

Those considered high risk include the homeless or those in transient living, those with a substance abuse history, users of injectable or non-injectable drugs, those in close contact with someone who has the virus, individuals with multiple sex partners and men having sex with men.

Livingston County Medical Director Dr. Don Lawrenchuk says prevention pays and they’re seeing more infections in people who don’t fit in the high risk categories and may have just been exposed to it the virus, whether through person to person contact or contaminated food or water. Lawrenchuk says with the holidays here, more people are traveling but also getting together with friends and family, meaning sharing food and other personal items. He tells WHMI there is the opportunity for the virus to spread and he expects they’ll continue to see more cases.

The health department is working to get the word out about ways to prevent Hepatitis A but also minimize the spread of it. Lawrenchuk says there is a very effective vaccine to consider that offers lifetime protection, which most people under age 20 have already received the vaccine as part of routine childhood immunizations. The group officials are most concerned about is those over 20-years-old because most likely have not gotten the vaccine and are at risk of getting the disease. It involves two doses but Lawrenchuk says even one without the booster can prove to be beneficial. It will be offered free to high risk individuals who are un-insured or under-insured through the local health department. For those with insurance, local pharmacies and healthcare providers typically stock the vaccine. Details are available on the health department’s website. A link is provided. (JM)