Politics & Government

South Carolina declares hepatitis outbreak. What you need to know

What began as a spike in reported hepatitis A cases in Aiken County has now spread to other parts of South Carolina, prompting state public health officials Monday to declare a statewide outbreak.

Since Nov. 1, the state has recorded 86 reported cases of the contagious disease, more than four times what state officials normally expect to see, a state health official said Monday. Most have occurred in Aiken County, and almost half of all cases involve individuals who reported drug use, said State Epidemiologist Linda Bell.

Confirmed Hepatitis A Cases Map April 2019_0.jpg
Confirmed cases of hepatitis A in South Carolina from Nov. 1, 2018 to May 10, 2019.

Over the last 10 years, South Carolina averaged 19 reported cases of hepatitis A annually.

Bell, though, cautioned the general population need not “be overly concerned about” the surge in people across the state contracting the virus.

“But we are seeing cases higher that what we expect to see,” Bell said. “And so it’s important for us to do our prevention efforts early to reach those high-risk groups, get them vaccinated ... so that we can prevent” a severe outbreak.

Linda Bell
Dr. Linda Bell, South Carolina state epidemiologist and director of the Bureau of Communicable Disease Prevention and Control S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control SCDHEC

As part of its outreach, DHEC says it is offering no-cost vaccines to groups the agency has identified as high risk, which are drug users, homeless, formerly incarcerated and sexually active gay men, according to DHEC.

Additionally, health officials recommend all children get two doses of the vaccine as part of their immunization schedule.

The surge in hepatitis A cases statewide coincides with a national outbreak that began in 2016. But the outbreak is worse in other states, Bell said.

“Many of those states are seeing hundreds to, some states, thousands of cases of hepatitis A.”

Of the 86 reported cases in South Carolina, 59 have led to hospitalization and one resulted in death, according to the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control.

Hepatitis is a disease characterized by inflammation of the liver. It comes in many forms, including hepatitis A, B and C. As a result, individuals with chronic liver disease, like cirrhosis, are at increased risk of complications if infected and should be vaccinated.

The virus-borne infection can be prevented by vaccination and is usually transmitted person-to-person through consumption of contaminated food or water, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Antibodies produced in response to hepatitis A infection last for life and protect against reinfection.

Infection usually results in sickness in two to six weeks after exposure. Symptoms include fatigue, loss of appetite, stomach pain, nausea, and yellowing of the eyes and skin. Symptoms usually resolve within two months of infection, according to the CDC.

State public health officials in February declared an outbreak in Aiken County after an employee at a second restaurant in Aiken tested positive for the virus, according to DHEC. Bell, though, stressed transmission by food or beverage is uncommon.

“Most transmission in the United States is through person-to-person contact,” Bell said. “Good hygiene — diligently washing your hands — is a good way to prevent hepatitis A, as well as not sharing personal items,” including drug equipment, she said, adding the state has received reports of hepatitis A from people using various drugs, “everything from marijuana to meth.”

Residents can schedule an appointment for a vaccination at their local health department by calling 855-472-3432 or going to http://bit.ly/2HhEsM8.

For more information, visit the DHEC website or the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website.

Related stories from The State in Columbia SC

Tom Barton covers South Carolina politics for The State. He has spent more than a decade covering local governments and politicians in Iowa and South Carolina, and has won awards from the S.C. Press Association and Iowa Newspaper Association for public service and feature writing.