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What is hepatitis A? Your questions about the virus answered

Health officials explain the hepatitis A virus — its symptoms, diagnosis, vaccination and who is most at risk.
Health officials explain the hepatitis A virus — its symptoms, diagnosis, vaccination and who is most at risk.
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SALT LAKE CITY — Since the news of hepatitis A exposures in West Jordan and Spanish Fork this week, calls have been pouring into the Salt Lake and Utah County health departments.

Health officials are encouraging the public to learn more about hepatitis A, including the virus' symptoms, diagnosis and treatment.

What is it?

"Hepatitis A is a viral liver disease that, unlike other forms of hepatitis, does not result in chronic infection," said Nicholas Rupp, spokesman for the Salt Lake County Health Department.

Hepatitis A is acute, meaning "it does eventually leave the body," unlike other chronic forms of hepatitis, he said.

What are the symptoms of hepatitis A?

Those infected with hepatitis A will usually experience "fatigue, nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, usually a lower-grade fever. And then, the hallmark of all the hepatitis illnesses is jaundice, which is the yellowing of the skin and the eyes," Rupp said.

These symptoms typically occur between two and six weeks after exposure, according to Utah Department of Health. However, not everyone develops symptoms even when infected with the virus.

While most people with hepatitis A recover, those with underlying medical conditions may require hospitalization, and in some cases the infection can even be fatal, Rupp said.

How do you get it?

"Hepatitis A is transmitted by what we call fecal-oral transmission, which is as unpleasant as it sounds," said Rupp. "That's when something that you may put in your mouth is contaminated with microscopic feces. If those feces are infected with hepatitis A, that's how you get it."

Whenever a person puts anything in their mouth, they are at risk of contracting hepatitis A, he said.

It's a "big concern" for Salt Lake County, Rupp added. "In this outbreak that we've been dealing with since August of 2017, we have seen hepatitis A stay primarily within certain high-risk groups."

High risk groups include those who are homeless, those who use illicit drugs, and those who are or have recently been incarcerated, he said.

However, if anyone infected with the virus handles food and doesn't wash their hands sufficiently, the virus could spread to "other populations."

Who should get a vaccination?

All children should receive the hepatitis A vaccination in two doses as part of their routine immunization schedule at their 12- and 18-month checkups, said Rupp.

This recommendation has only been in place since the mid-90s. Officials encourage those born before then to receive the vaccination if they use illicit drugs, have a liver disease, or work and travel in countries with high rates of hepatitis A. Those who live in or work with a high-risk population should also be vaccinated.

In addition, though the state of Utah does not require it, health officials encourage all food service workers in Salt Lake County to get vaccinated as a way to help prevent future outbreaks.

Anyone else concerned about the outbreak may also consider a vaccination. Rupp recommends speaking about the issue with your healthcare provider and pharmacist.

"We definitely want everyone to consider it," he said.

How do you treat hepatitis A?

The Utah Health Department recommends getting vaccinated within two weeks of exposure to the virus.

"If you're ill enough to be hospitalized when you have hepatitis A, you'll receive supportive care to make sure that you're comfortable and to try to help your body cope with it," Rupp said.

"But it really does just have to resolve itself over time."

Anyone living in the same household as well as sexual partners of those who have the virus may also need a vaccination, according to the Utah Health Department.

How do you avoid getting it?

"I want to encourage food service workers to get vaccinated. And then, even more importantly, I want to encourage everybody in our community to be washing their hands," said Rupp.

"That is the biggest thing we can do to prevent the spread of hepatitis A: Wash our hands after using the restroom, wash our hands before we eat, wash our hands when we've been out in public touching those doorknobs and railings and things that we all share."