Northwestern Virginia is seeing an increase in hepatitis A cases, the Virginia Department of Health recently announced.

Though hepatitis A can be spread in many ways, outbreaks usually occur when people are exposed to food tainted by fecal matter from an infected person, said Marshall Vogt, an epidemiologist with the health department’s Division of Immunization.

“In this case, it’s really just spreading from person to person,” he said.

Hepatitis A is a virus that can be spread by sharing needles with an infected person or having sexual contact with an infected person. Cases are more prevalent among the homeless or recently homeless, incarcerated or recently incarcerated, and men who have sexual contact with other men.

But the virus can also spread through improper hand-washing practices, sharing of infected items, or through exposure of infected blood, Vogt said.

Routine childhood vaccines include an immunization against hepatitis A, but Vogt said that older people who didn’t have the vaccine as children can be infected – especially if they’re in a high risk group like the homeless or incarcerated.

“Hepatitis just means inflammation of the liver,” Vogt said.

Symptoms include fatigue, low appetite, jaundice, upset stomach, diarrhea, dark urine and light stools.

The vaccine is a one-time, two-dose series, six months apart. Vaccines are available at doctors’ offices, pharmacies and through the health department.

Hepatitis isn’t new, but Vogt said its rate of movement across the nation is what makes this recent threat so unique.

“This is the first time in as long as I can remember [that there’s been an] increase in this magnitude across the country,” he said.

Based on data collected in the first three months of this year, compared to historical data, he said the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are classifying this trend as an outbreak.

“Multiple states across the country have reported outbreaks of hepatitis A, primarily among people who use drugs and people experiencing homelessness,” the CDC reported in a Health Alert Network Advisory at its website, https://www.cdc.gov/hepatitis/outbreaks/2017March-HepatitisA.htm.

“Since these outbreaks were first identified in 2016, more than 15,000 cases and 8,500 (57%) hospitalizations have been reported. Hospitalization rates have been higher than typically associated with HAV infection. … Severe complications have also been reported, sometimes leading to liver transplantation or death; at least 140 deaths have occurred nationwide.”

Prevention of hepatitis A is more than 95 percent effective with a vaccine, Vogt said.

“That’s the real focus now.”

Contact Josette Keelor at jkeelor@nvdaily.com