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In the category of health threats about which you may know little, the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control defines the number of hepatitis A cases in Aiken County and other parts of the state as a statewide outbreak.

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If that sounds serious, it is.

Hepatitis A is a contagious liver infection caused by a virus that is typically transmitted through person-to-person contact with someone who has the infection or through eating or drinking food or water contaminated by an infected person. Most people who contract hepatitis A feel sick for several weeks, but, thankfully, they usually recover completely and do not have lasting liver damage. People usually become sick within two to six weeks after being exposed, and symptoms include nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, stomach pain or yellowing of the eyes and skin.

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The statewide outbreak was declared in May amid a steady increase in cases.

Over the past 10 years, South Carolina averaged 19 reported cases of hepatitis A annually. Between Nov. 1, 2018, and May 10, 2019, there were 86 reported cases of hepatitis A in South Carolina, leading to 59 hospitalizations and one death. Forty-eight more cases were confirmed in June, according to DHEC, the same number as in May.

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“Dr. Linda Bell, state epidemiologist and director of the Bureau of Communicable Disease Prevention and Control, said DHEC has intensified efforts to control the spread of hepatitis A to avoid a severe outbreak that could threaten the general population.

The statewide outbreak coincides with the national hepatitis A outbreak that began in 2016. An outbreak is defined when a disease occurs in greater numbers than expected within a defined area and time period. DHEC previously declared a localized hepatitis A outbreak in Aiken County in February 2019.

So far, most cases have occurred in Aiken County, and almost half of all cases involve individuals who report drug use. Certain adults who may be at higher risk for hepatitis A include:

• People who use injection or non-injection drugs

• People who are homeless

• People who are or recently were incarcerated

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• Men who have sex with men

• People with chronic liver disease like cirrhosis, hepatitis B or C

• People who are traveling to countries where hepatitis A is common

• People with chronic liver disease like cirrhosis, hepatitis B or C as they have an increased risk of complications if infected with hepatitis A

“We have established a hepatitis A task force that is coordinating efforts to control the spread of the virus by increasing vaccination rates among high-risk groups, establishing partnerships critical to reaching those groups, and conducting outreach and education efforts,” Bell said.

Additionally, DHEC offers no-cost hepatitis A vaccines to individuals who are drug users, homeless, men who have sex with men or those who have a history of incarceration. Residents can schedule an appointment for a vaccination at their local health department by calling 855-472-3432 or visiting www.scdhec.gov/health/health-public-health-clinics.

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South Carolina health officials are hoping the worst of the hepatitis A outbreak is over with the number of cases leveling off at about the same each month.

To be proactive, here are steps you can take to protect yourself and community:

• Get vaccinated against hepatitis A. Vaccination is considered the single best preventive step you can take and is considered particularly important for people working around diverse populations from around the state and elsewhere.

• Wash your hands after using the restroom and before eating or preparing meals.

• Refrain from sex with someone who has a hepatitis A infection.

• Immediately seek medical care if a hepatitis A infection is suspected.

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