Cases of hepatitis on rise in Arkansas; vaccine offered for free in county

An outbreak of hepatitis A in northeast Arkansas has almost doubled in size, to 60 cases, in just over a month and resulted in one death, prompting the state on Friday to urge all residents of Greene County age 19-60 to get vaccinated.

The state Department of Health will offer the vaccine to county residents in Paragould, at no cost to the residents, at two clinics next week.

"Our [epidemic curve] appears to show that we are on the upswing of cases, and because of that we are attempting to be more aggressive in terms of public health response to potentially stop it," state epidemiologist Dirk Haselow said.

The single death occurred within the past 30 days, Haselow said. He declined to provide further details, citing patient privacy concerns.

He did say that all the cases that have been reported so far were in adults and that all but one were among people age 19-60. According to the Health Department, many children have already been vaccinated and many adults over age 60 have developed immunity through previous exposure to the virus.

Since February, the department has administered 2,000 doses of the vaccine, primarily in Clay County and in campaigns targeting food service workers and customers who ate at restaurants where infected people worked, Haselow said.

In preparation for next week's clinics, aimed at a broader group of residents, the department has purchased 4,000 doses.

"We hope to give every one away, and if we do that, we will order more," Haselow said.

The clinics will both be from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. on Thursday and Friday at the Greene County Health Unit at 801 Goldsmith Road and at Eastside Baptist Church at 529 E. Court St.

Residents should bring their insurance card and driver's license if they have them. The shot will be free for those without insurance. Those with insurance will not have to pay out of pocket.

Hepatitis A affects the liver and is typically spread when a person ingests small amounts of fecal matter. Although a person may feel sick for months, most people will recover completely and will not have any lasting liver damage, the department said.

Eighty percent of the cases reported in the state in the last month have been in Greene County, the department said. Since February, more than 20 cases have also been reported in Clay County. Smaller numbers of cases have been reported in Craighead, Lawrence, Randolph and Independence counties.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the outbreak is one of several across the country that have affected primarily drug users and homeless people.

In southeastern Missouri, 144 cases had been reported from September of last year through Tuesday. Kentucky reported more than 1,000 cases from August through July 7. Other outbreaks have been reported in California, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio, Tennessee, Utah and West Virginia.

Typical symptoms of hepatitis A are fever, fatigue, loss of appetite, nausea, abdominal pain, dark urine, clay-colored bowel movements, joint pain or jaundice, according to the Health Department.

Vaccinations have been required for Arkansas children in day cares, kindergartens and first grade since 2014. Most adults are likely not vaccinated, although they may get vaccinations if they travel out of the country, the department said.

Health care providers reported seven cases in the state last year, 13 in 2016 and 10 in 2015.

Metro on 07/21/2018