Florida is seeing a surge in hepatitis A infections and a majority of the cases are turning up in the Tampa Bay area.
Three of the top five counties with the highest infection rates this year are in the Tampa Bay area: Pinellas County (319); Pasco (267); and Hillsborough: (165). Orange County in the Orlando area is also seeing a surge with 179 cases.
Meanwhile, infection rates in other metropolitan areas, such as Miami-Dade County (32), are more modest.
“Why it's higher in Pinellas, I wish we knew,” said Maggie Hall with the Florida Department of Health in Pinellas County. “But some of what we're seeing, our best guess is that it may have to do with the opioid crisis.”
The surge began in 2018 and since then Pinellas health officials have been meeting weekly to coordinate prevention efforts and outreach.
Hall says many of those who get infected in Pinellas are homeless men between 30 and 50 years old who use drugs.
The elevated rates in Pasco and Orange counties could be related to the contagious population moving between areas, she said.
“If we had a definite answer, that would be a solution to getting ahead of this,” Hall said. “It’s mind boggling in many ways. That’s why we’re trying to do as many things as we can to reach that target population.”
The health department is conducting outreaches in all areas of Pinellas County, including the jail, to educate and vaccinate people.
The health department in Pinellas is offering free hepatitis A vaccinations. Hall says everyone should get one, regardless of their risk factors because the virus can survive on surfaces and be transmitted to anyone.
“If somebody who is infected touches a surface without washing their hands and you come up behind them, it doesn't matter if you are female, younger, don't do drugs and have a stable home,” she said. “It’s out there. It’s everywhere. The best thing to do if you want to protect yourself is get the vaccine.”
Since 2018, the health department has provided 7,298 hepatitis A vaccinations to people in Pinellas County.
“People can come to our clinics to get it and we go out to where the at-risk people are,” Hall said.
Hepatitis A is caused by a virus that infects the liver. If not treated, it can lead to serious liver problems.
The virus is spread through the feces of people who have the virus. That’s why it’s so important for people to wash their hands after using the bathroom, Hall said. The virus can also be transferred through sex and the shared use of needles.
Symptoms include fever, fatigue, loss of appetite, nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, dark urine and diarrhea. People with hepatitis A could go two to six weeks without symptoms but still be contagious.