LA and SMC Health Officials Warn of Hepatitis A Outbreak

Illustration by Diana Parra-Garcia

Illustration by Diana Parra-Garcia

Santa Monica College Student Health Services is raising awareness and urging prevention of Hepatitis A since the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health announced an outbreak of 10 cases on Tuesday September 19, 2017.

The news first broke that Tuesday at a presentation to the L.A. County Board of Supervisors. Director of Public Health Dr. Barbara Ferrer confirmed that the county had officially met the definition of a local outbreak. Two of the ten cases could not be traced back to existing outbreaks in San Diego or Santa Cruz.

Hepatitis A is a liver disease caused by the Hepatitis A virus and is highly contagious. Cases can last from a few weeks to several months, and most people recover completely without lasting liver damage. However, some cases can lead to hospitalization, liver damage, and death. Patients over 50 years of age, underlying medical conditions, or compromised immune systems are higher at risk, according to Ferrer’s presentation. She cited touching contaminated surfaces or objects, having sexual contact with an infected partner, and consuming virus-contaminated foods or drinks as the most common ways that Hepatitis A spreads.

In response to the county’s announcement, SMC Health Services sent out a mass email to all faculty with details about the virus and how it spreads, as well as tips for prevention. According to the Health Services email, the hepatitis A virus is “transmitted primarily by the fecal-oral route; that is, when an uninfected person ingests food or water that has been contaminated with the feces of an infected person.” Symptoms of hepatitis A include fever, fatigue, loss of appetite, nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, dark urine, grey-colored stools, joint pain, and jaundice, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

To prevent infection, the email recommends simple precautions. Wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water. Only using carbonated bottled water for brushing teeth. Avoid unclean food and water, or under-cooked meat and fish. Avoid purchasing food from street vendors. Eat hot food right away. Be weary of sliced fruit that may have been washed in contaminated water.

One notable absence from the recommendations sent to faculty is a suggestion for students to consider vaccination. In stark contrast to Ferrer’s warnings at the Board of Supervisors meeting that vaccination is, “the most important prevention for Hepatitis A.” The Corsair followed up in an interview with Student Health Services staff, seeking clarity on this issue.

“It's a personal decision,” said Kasiani Gountoumas, Student Health Services Nurse Practitioner. "But since we've been having a couple of outbreaks, especially down in San Diego, and here because of poor sanitation and increased number of homeless, I don't think there is harm for someone, especially students, to get [the hepatitis A vaccine]."

Gountoumas explains how Hepatitis A can spread among students, which she says can be prevented primarily by washing your hands. "Let's say you go to the restroom and someone is infected with hepatitis A," Gountoumas said. "They go to the bathroom, they don't wash their hands, then most likely you can get it."

“Especially with the outbreak, it's good to speak to their personal doctor to see if the insurance covers it,” she continued. “There's no harm or side effects to receive the Hepatitis A vaccine, so you can be on the safe side. And it depends on the person, if they want to do the Hepatitis A [vaccine] they can always come over here. We provide it, and I think it's a very low cost, 30-40 dollars per vaccine, which is not a bad idea.”

SMC Health Services does indeed offer the Hepatitis A vaccine as a series of two injections costing a total of $70. For information about low or no-cost vaccination, LA Public Health recommends dialing 211 to be directed to appropriate resources.