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Gaston County Public Health Reports Increase in Hepatitis A Cases, Urges Vaccination during Hepatitis Awareness Month

GASTONIA, N.C. – In light of May being proclaimed as Hepatitis Awareness Month in North Carolina, the Gaston County Health Department is urging people to get vaccinated against Hepatitis A to prevent infection. This is especially critical as Gaston County has seen dramatic increases in local cases of Hepatitis A related to an ongoing outbreak that has impacted the entire state, most significantly the Piedmont and Western regions.

From 2018 through 2020, the county only saw 33 local cases of Hepatitis A, but have already had 70 documented cases in just three months of 2021. Cases have occurred primarily among three risk groups: (1) persons who use injection or non-injection drugs; (2) persons who are experiencing homelessness; and (3) men who have sex with men.

Hepatitis A is a contagious, vaccine-preventable liver infection that can range from a mild illness lasting a few weeks to severe illness lasting several months. Symptoms include fever, fatigue, nausea, loss of appetite and stomach pain. Jaundice (yellowing of the skin and/or eyes), dark-colored urine and clay-colored bowel movements may also occur. Symptoms can appear 15-50 days (average 28 days) following infection with the virus. Because hepatitis A causes inflammation of the liver, anyone with underlying liver disease is at risk of more serious illness if infected. The virus is usually transmitted through food or water that has been contaminated with undetectable amounts of feces from a contagious person, such as when food is prepared with unwashed hands.

Hepatitis A can be prevented by a safe and effective vaccine.  If you are in one of the risk groups described (a person experiencing homelessness, a person who uses injection or non-injection drugs, or a man who has sex with men) or if you had contact with someone with Hepatitis A, contact your health care provider or the health department about receiving a vaccine. Additionally, always wash your hands with soap and water after going to the bathroom, after changing diapers, and before preparing meals for yourself and others.

 “We’ve really never seen anything like this,” shared Ellen Wright, Communicable Disease Supervisor for the Gaston County Health Department. “The case numbers are the highest we’ve seen and continue to climb. While our homeless population, incarcerated individuals and those using drugs are the most impacted right now, it only takes one person working in a restaurant or other public-facing industry to cause a large-scale community outbreak. We have to do everything we can to get high-risk individuals vaccinated so we can prevent the spread.”

For more information about Hepatitis or to find out how to get vaccinated, contact our Communicable Disease nurses at 704-853-5002 or 704-853-5141.

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