the north face shirt Hepatitis outbreak moves north
TRAVERSE CITY Health professionals are urging local residents to get vaccinated as a potentially dangerous outbreak of Hepatitis A creeps its way into northern Michigan.
Five people have contracted the virus in Grand Traverse and Leelanau counties since officials tracked the outbreak from its epicenter in southeast Michigan. And two more confirmed cases were discovered this week in Mecosta and Newaygo counties have put local officials on high alert.
“It’s slowly spreading north and west,” said Jeannine Taylor, public information officer at District Health Department No. 10. “It’s really only a matter of time before it starts to spread into other counties. We want to make sure residents are taking precautions.”
More than 700 cases have been confirmed in Michigan since the outbreak began in August 2016, according to the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services. Most cases are contained near Detroit but this particularly durable strain is causing some officials to grow concerned.
State data suggests more than 80 percent of those with Hepatitis A have landed in the hospital and about three percent or 23 patients have died from complications associated with the virus since the outbreak began. Awareness is essential to quell its spread, officials said.
“This indicates that our communities in northern Michigan are still at risk for more cases,” said Wendy Hirschenberger, health officer at Grand Traverse County’s health department. “Right now we’re just focused on preventing the spread. This particular outbreak appears to be severe.”
Hepatitis A can be a serious and contagious liver disease, officials said. Those infected with the virus can go months without experiencing any of the typical symptoms like nausea, stomach pain, fatigue, fever, joint pain, appetite loss, dark urine, yellowing skin or eyes and pale colored feces.
But the virus still can spread even when symptoms aren’t obvious. Medical Director Jennifer Morse also said gay men, homeless people and those with a history of substance abuse are at a higher risk than others for contracting the virus.
The main reason: Hepatitis A primarily spreads from fecal matter to the mouth, she said. Group settings primarily in unclean environments can be a breeding ground for the outbreak, she said. Morse urged local residents to wash their hands, especially before they sit down for a meal.
“The thought process is those people often abuse substances no matter what they are often in groups,” Morse said. “It might not be in the cleanest environment either. We’re trying to find soup kitchens and homeless shelters. We’re trying to reach out but it can be a challenge.”
Hirschenberger said those who work in the restaurant business should take extra precautions. The virus could easily spread if a bartender touched the rim of a glass or reached into the ice bin with contaminated hands, for instance. She said vaccines are the only sure fire way to avoid the virus. None of the five local cases are associated with food service workers, officials added.
“That’s been the problem,” Morse added. “It just keeps going. It’s not your typical outbreak. Usually, with an outbreak, things spread and it’s eventually contained and it stops. This outbreak has been challenging because it seems to have some unique risk factors for spreading.”
Most local health departments including Grand Traverse and District Health Department No. 10 offer assistance to those who need a vaccine. Hirschenberger said effectiveness rates are as high as 98 percent. Residents need only call their local health department branch to get started.
Morse also encourages those with suggestions on how to better reach higher risk populations to contact their local health department. She said she’s always looking for ideas to expand services.
“The biggest thing we can do is get those people vaccinated,” she said. “The problem is those individuals can often be hard to find. We’re trying to reach out but it can be a challenge.”