PA Health Department Declares Hepatitis A Outbreak, Cause Unknown

May 21, 2019

The Pennsylvania Department of Health is declaring an outbreak of hepatitis A, with Philadelphia and Pittsburgh the hardest-hit regions. 

There have been 171 cases reported since January 2018, said Health Department Secretary Dr. Rachel Levine. The viral liver infection is spread person-to-person through feces, with symptoms ranging from mild to life-threatening.

"The number of cases already this year is greater than 60, and that is double of that last year at the same point in time," Levine said.  

Past hepatitis A outbreaks often were traced back to one specific contamination point, such as food at a restaurant, Levine said. However, this outbreak doesn't fit that profile. Experts including the Centers for Disease Control are still working to learn what caused it.

Opioid addiction, which remains at a crisis level in Pennsylvania, may be playing a role in spreading the disease, Levine said. People who are homeless, people who use intravenous drugs like heroin, and men who have sex with men are the most at-risk. 

"It's hard to know for sure why we are experiencing an outbreak of hepatitis A," Levine said. "We do know that the Commonwealth has seen an increase of diseases like hepatitis C and HIV because of the opioid epidemic."

While Philadelphia and Allegheny counties have seen the highest concentrations of cases, this strand of hepatitis A has turned up in 36 Pennsylvania counties.

Similar hepatitis A outbreaks have also recently been reported in West Virginia, Ohio, and other states. The Centers for Disease Control on its website identified 23 states reporting recent Hepatitis A outbreaks.

Levine noted, a vaccination, which is now commonly given to children, will prevent hepatitis A exposure. The department has created a map of clinics around the state that provide the vaccination

By declaring an outbreak, the state can tap into federal funds to get additional vaccines if needed, Levine said.