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Two Deaths Reported From Hepatitis A, But Officials Say Epidemic May Be Waning

Erik Neumann / KUER
Salt Lake County employee Terry Begay gives the hepatitis A vaccine outside the Weigand Homeless Resource Center in downtown Salt Lake City.

Officials with the Salt Lake County Health Department announced two deaths from hepatitis A this week. They mark the first two fatalities in a months-long outbreak of the disease, but experts say the epidemic is starting to recede.

Both individuals who died were residents of Salt Lake County, in what health officials considered ‘high-risk groups’ — homeless individuals, people using intravenous drugs and those who were recently incarcerated. According to Salt Lake County Medical Director Dagmar Vitek, this population is especially vulnerable because they frequently have other health issues that can cause the disease to be fatal.

“Really, people should not die from hepatitis A,” Vitek said.

The first death occurred in January, but it took time for officials to confirm that hepatitis A was the cause. The second death happened in late March. Officials could not provide further details about the individuals who died because of medical privacy laws.

Right now officials at the county health department are seeing two-to-four cases each week. During the peak of the outbreak, they were getting around 10 per week. According to Vitek, that means the outbreak may have peaked.

“It looks like it has,” she said. “But I don’t have a crystal ball.”

Hepatitis A is a liver disease that’s spread through poor sanitation, specifically food contaminated with feces from an infected person. It can also be spread by sharing needles. Symptoms include nausea, stomach pain, fatigue and yellowing of the skin and eyes.

So far, 148 cases have been identified in Salt Lake County since the outbreak began in May of last year. In a typical year officials expect five cases.

Over the last year, public health workers have given around 9,000 vaccinations in Salt Lake County, with a focus on the high-risk groups.

The outbreak originated in San Diego, Calif., which recently declared its outbreak to be over.

At this point, Vitek said she does not see any ongoing danger to the general public. 

Erik Neumann is a radio producer and writer. A native of the Pacific Northwest, his work has appeared on public radio stations and in magazines along the West Coast. He received his Bachelor's Degree in geography from the University of Washington and a Master's in Journalism from UC Berkeley. Besides working at KUER, he enjoys being outside in just about every way possible.
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