While Pine and Kanabec counties were some of the first and hardest hit by an outbreak of the liver disease, hepatitis A, new cases have slowed in those counties as public health workers push education and vaccination efforts.
“Our response to the hepatitis A outbreak has been swift and ongoing,” said Shari Wiltrout, immunization manager and family health nurse at Kanabec County Community Health.
The Minnesota Department of Health announced the outbreak Aug. 8, 2019. At that time, there were 23 known cases statewide. Five were in Pine County, three in Kanabec.
As of Nov. 8, the number of cases statewide increased to 49, however, no new cases were declared in Pine County; two more were recorded in Kanabec.
Since the declaration, public health workers have vaccinated approximately 200 people in Kanabec County and 100 in Pine County.
People most at risk of contracting the disease are people who use street drugs (injection or non-injection), are experiencing homelessness or unstable housing, or have been recently incarcerated.
Efforts to educate and vaccinate have been targeted toward at-risk populations or the people who work with them.
Wiltrout described fighting this kind of outbreak as a marathon, not a sprint. Fighting it would take a long-term commitment to reaching susceptible populations with education and vaccine.
Pine County Health and Human Services Community Health Services Administrator Samantha Lo said prioritizing education, vaccination and fast treatment efforts has served them well.
“I do believe it is working,” she said. “Pine County was one of the initial counties impacted when the outbreak began, but since that initial cluster of cases in the beginning, we have not had any additional cases. I believe this has to do with our comprehensive approach of both education and vaccination, along with collaborating with our many partners to reach as many people as possible. We also receive assistance from the Minnesota Department of Health Infectious Disease department, which has been incredibly helpful.”
What is Hepatitis A?
Hepatitis A is a contagious liver infection caused by a virus. It can range from a mild infection with no symptoms lasting a few weeks to a severe illness lasting several months that can result in liver failure and death. Early diagnosis and medical care are key to preventing more serious health outcomes.
Hepatitis A is usually spread person-to-person when someone eats food, drinks a beverage or places an object in their mouth that has been contaminated with trace amounts of feces from someone who has the virus.
According to the Minnesota Department of Health, the most effective way to prevent hepatitis A is vaccination. Vaccination is recommended for all children starting at 1 year, for travelers to certain countries and for people at high risk for infection.
While hepatitis A vaccination has been recommended for children since 2006, many adults have not been vaccinated for hepatitis A.
According to a press release from the Minnesota Department of Health, Minnesota began seeing an increase in hepatitis A cases in May 2019. These cases had similar risk factors to national outbreaks of hepatitis A that have been occurring since 2016.
While initial cases were clustered in east-central Minnesota and had links to each other, more recent cases occurred in counties in other parts of the state. The infection source is not known for some cases, suggesting some community transmission among those in high-risk groups.