JACKSON • Mississippi has officially joined 23 other states that are fighting hepatitis A outbreaks.

Hepatitis A, a virus that affects the liver, historically occurs in small numbers in Mississippi, but on Wednesday afternoon the Mississippi State Department of Health announced the state had crossed a threshold.

“An outbreak occurs when we see an increased number of cases greater than what is normally expected over time,” said State Epidemiologist Dr. Paul Byers. “Since April we’ve seen 23 cases in Mississippi. We investigate all reported cases to identify their contacts and provide vaccination.”

Through July 26, The Centers for Disease Control reported 23 states with hepatitis A outbreaks, including Louisiana, Arkansas, Tennessee and Alabama. Since 2016, the CDC has tracked nearly 22,600 cases.

The hepatitis A case involving a Calhoun City restaurant worker is not considered part of the outbreak, said Liz Sharlot, state health department director of communications. The state health department follow up investigation, which was publicly announced last week, has identified no other cases of hepatitis A connected to that case.

Hepatitis A is a contagious liver disease that can be spread when a person ingests the virus through food or drink that is contaminated with the feces of an infected person or through close, personal contact with an infected person, including sexual contact and sharing or handling objects with someone who is infected. Symptoms of hepatitis A include nausea, diarrhea, and vomiting, jaundice – yellowing of the skin and eyes – stomach pain, low appetite and fever.

“In Mississippi, our most at-risk populations are those who use recreational drugs, are currently in jail or were recently in jail, men who have sex with men, and those with unstable housing or who are homeless,” Byers said. “Other states are seeing similar trends.”

In the cases reported to the health department, more than half were severe enough to require hospital care, according to data posted by the health department.

“61 percent of outbreak cases are seen in drug user population,” Sharlot said.

Hepatitis A can be prevented through a vaccine. Other prevention measures include practicing strong hygiene habits such as thoroughly washing your hands after using the bathroom.

“We are strongly recommending that all persons who are at higher risk get hepatitis A vaccine” Byers said. “

The vaccine is widely available through health care clinics and pharmacies. All county health departments can give the vaccine for uninsured or underinsured people.

For more information on hepatitis A, visit the MSDH website at HealthyMS.com/hepA.

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