OSWEGO — More than 60 cases of hepatitis A have been confirmed in Oswego County, the most of any county in the state, since a summer outbreak but transmission of the virus could be slowing down.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), outbreaks of hepatitis A have been occurring across the country in recent years. Oswego County health officials recorded 63 confirmed cases since a June outbreak in the state, but not a single case has been recorded so far in 2020.
Oswego County Public Health Director Jiancheng Huang said the county has not had a confirmed case of hepatitis A since Dec. 23, adding local health officials are “closely monitoring the situation.”
Hepatitis A is a liver infection caused by the hepatitis A virus, according to the CDC. Hepatitis A is very contagious, and people can spread the virus before they get symptoms such as nausea, stomach pain, and yellow skin or eyes.
The state Department of Health (DOH) issues an advisory Dec. 12 announcing the number of hepatitis A cases reported between January and November 2019 increased 235 percent compared to the average number of cases reported annually between 2016 and 2018.
A DOH spokesman said since the outbreak began, the state has seen 221 reported cases, excluding those in New York City, between June 1 last year and January 18.
Huang said three high-risk populations are especially susceptible to contracting hepatitis A: drug-users, individuals experiencing homelessness and currently or recently incarcerated people. The state Department of Health (DOH) added that men who have same-sex partners may also be at heightened risk.
The county Health Department has made a variety of efforts to curb cases among these groups, and Huang said officials reached out to the Oswego County Correctional Facility and area motels that house homeless populations to promote the hepatitis A vaccine.
One challenge, Huang noted, is convincing some reluctant individuals to accept the vaccination.
People who get hepatitis A may feel sick for a few weeks to several months, according to the CDC, and the virus can survive on surfaces for several months.
Most people recover and do not have lasting liver damage, some people need to be hospitalized. Hepatitis A can cause death, especially for people who are older or have other health problems.
Health officials say good hygiene — including hand washing after using the bathroom, changing diapers and preparing or eating food — is important in preventing hepatitis A. The DOH, however, says the best way to prevent against hepatitis A is through vaccination.
A single dose of the hepatitis A vaccine has been demonstrated to control outbreaks of the virus and provide up to 95 percent protection in healthy individuals for up to 11 years, according to state officials.
The DOH recommends all children be vaccinated at the age of one in addition to those who are part of high-risk populations. Huang said the vaccine, however, is not offered to everyone.
Huang said there have been no hepatitis A deaths in the county during the outbreak and many cases were treated at the Oswego Hospital emergency room. He added some serious cases were exacerbated by underlying chronic issues, such as malnutrition.
“I encourage county residence to diligently practice their individual hygiene and wash hands frequently,” Huang said. He went on to urge local business owners to send their employees to seek medical attention if they display hepatitis symptoms, especially those in food service.
Huang said opinions vary among experts as to why the hepatitis cases are high in Oswego County, but he believes the county needs to improve preventative measures and get more people vaccinated.
Annual hepatitis A outbreaks have decreased from more than 10,000 in 2001 to around 2,000 per year in recent years, CDC data shows. Huang said the most recent nationwide outbreak began on the west coast in 2017 and slowly moved east.