A state of emergency for San Diego Country was declared on September 1 as the city contends with an outbreak of Hepatitis A. Nearly 450 people there have been infected by the illness, with a further 70 cases popping up in Santa Cruz.
Hepatitis A is a viral liver disease that is usually spread by consuming contaminated water and food or by contact with someone who is infected with it – or their fecal matter. The city’s increasing homeless population and general lack of public bathrooms are believed to be contributing to the outbreak. San Diego County has the nation’s fourth largest homeless population.
The outbreaks have prompted city officials to sanitize the streets and other areas downtown that have been described as “fecally contaminated.” A spokesman for the city’s mayor says the cleanings will take place three times per week every other week. This entails using high-pressure washing with bleach-spiked water to get rid of all the feces, bodily fluids, blood and other contaminants from surfaces. It is believed that the outbreak could end up costing the county’s health department as much as $1 million.
According to the Huffington Post, Hepatitis A can spread quite easily. For example, you could get it from touching a door handle right after a contagious person who didn’t wash their hands touched it and then eating lunch. Many homeless people defecate outside due to a lack of city restroom facilities, so it’s easy to imagine just how big this problem could become.
Its ease of transmission has small business owners, especially restaurants, in the affected areas concerned that even the slightest misstep could cause them to infect customers and lose business. This particular outbreak might not be related to food safety, but should a restaurant worker become contaminated, for example, they could easily pass it on to all of the people who dine there.
The city has extended restroom hours and installed more than 40 hand washing stations in places where homeless people tend to sleep in hopes of getting the problem under control. Homeless people are the most likely to contract and spread Hepatitis A, and illicit drug users are also highly vulnerable. The hand washing stations contain information about how the disease is spread.
Hepatitis A has an incubation period of between two and three weeks. It can range in severity depending on the person. Those with the illness might experience a loss of appetite, fever, nausea, jaundice, diarrhea, and dark-colored urine. In the worst cases, it can spur acute liver failure and become fatal.
Poor sanitation, a lack of clean water, living or having sexual relations with a person who is infected, traveling to high-risk areas and recreational drug use are considered risk factors. The illness does not have any specific treatment, and it can take several months to recover from its symptoms.
On Tuesday, L.A. County declared a hepatitis A outbreak as well. Ten cases have been reported there so far, half of which were linked to the San Diego outbreaks. Some of the infected individuals are drug users and homeless people, and others are health care workers who helped those who were infected. It won’t be surprising to see even more areas following suit as this highly contagious disease continues to spread.