County battling Hep A outbreak

Health director for the Oswego County Health Department Jiancheng Huang.

OSWEGO COUNTY — Local public health officials are moving swiftly to mitigate the sudden rise of hepatitis A infections among the local population, which they say are due to “health behavior issues” among Oswego County residents.

Twenty-two cases of hepatitis A have been confirmed since July of 2019, which is “significantly more than usual,” according to the Oswego County Health Department.

“This increase is more related to some health behavior issues,” Jiancheng Huang, public health director for Oswego County, said in an interview with The Palladium-Times on Tuesday. “People get together and have a party and share utensils, share tobacco butts and conduct unprotected sexual activities.”

Huang said the New York State Department of Health sent the Oswego County Health Department the names of 22 individuals with confirmed cases of hepatitis A since July of this year.

County public health officials proceeded to investigate the individual cases and those closely associated with affected individuals. This includes people who shared cigarettes, utensils, drinks, sexual contact and any other instances involving an exchange of bodily substances with the individuals found to have the disease, Huang said. 

“When the state sent us confirmed cases, we did investigations and we investigated their close contacts,” Huang told The Palladium-Times in an interview Tuesday.

Local health officials are conducting a countywide sweep of health facilities, substance abuse treatment centers and probation offices — like the County of Oswego Council on Alcoholism and Addictions (COCOAA) and Farnham Family Services — to educate the population on how to prevent infection by the hepatitis A virus. Health experts from the county Health Department are also vaccinating inmates at the Oswego County Correctional Facility.

“We’re doing an increase in education — we’re going out to the probation office, and we’ve been going to substance abuse treatment centers, as well,” said Jodi Martin, supervising public health nurse for the Oswego County Health Department. “We’ll go to Farnham and COCOAA and go into the jail and vaccinate inmates there.”

Hepatitis A is a highly contagious infection that may show no symptoms upon its infection in humans, according to an alert released by the Oswego County Health Department at the end of September.

Any symptoms usually occur within two to six weeks after exposure and can include tiredness, fever, appetite loss, nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, dark urine, clay-colored stools, joint pain and yellowing of the eyes and skin.

Martin said people can get hepatitis A from contaminated food or water and from close contact with a person diagnosed with hepatitis A. She said “close contact” includes having sexual contact, sharing recreational drugs, injected or not injected, and living with or caring for individuals.

“Washing their hands is a big way to prevent the spread [of hepatitis A], especially if they’re around someone who has hepatitis A,” Martin said. 

Since hepatitis A is a vaccine-preventable illness, local health experts are recommending anyone exposed to the virus be vaccinated as soon as possible. Vaccination can help prevent infection if given within two weeks of exposure, according to the recent Health Department alert.

“We try to find during this period who you contacted and who you lived with,” Huang said. “This way we identify their close contacts and review their vaccine history and give them the vaccine.”

Health department officials are urging anyone who has had contact with someone diagnosed with hepatitis A to receive the pertinent vaccination treatment. The Oswego County Health Department, located a 70 Bunner St., Oswego, accepts walk-ins on Tuesdays from 12:30 to 3:30 p.m. The clinic is also available at the H. Douglas Barclay Courthouse at 1 Broad St., Pulaski, the third Tuesday of every month, by appointment only. 

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