Florida is one of more than two dozen U.S. states dealing with an outbreak of Hepatitis A. To date, Florida is reporting 2,675 cases of the highly contagious virus. If left untreated, it can cause liver damage.
In response, Florida’s Surgeon General Scott Rivkees declared a public health emergency for all counties in August.
While South Florida is one of the most highly populated areas of the state, it has fewer Hep A infections than other regions in Florida. At last check, Palm Beach County reported 66 cases of Hepatitis A so far this year, Miami-Dade has 30, Broward reported 16 cases and there was only one case in Monroe County. The hardest hit counties are in the Tampa Bay area; Pasco and Pinellas Counties have reported 394 and 368 cases, respectively.
When asked by Florida lawmakers why infection rates in South Florida are so low, Rivkees said the region had braced itself for the epidemic and responded quickly.
“It’s a reportable disease and a preventable disease,” says Marie K. Etienne, a registered nurse for the Florida Department of Health in Miami-Dade County and coordinator for the county’s hepatitis prevention program.
Since early 2017, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has been helping multiple state and local health departments with Hep A outbreaks. As in other counties with highly organized hepatitis prevention programs, Miami-Dade responded to the early warning signs by increasing its vaccination of and outreach to the populations considered most at risk for the disease. That includes drug users and homeless people.
According to the Florida Department of Health, Hepatitis A is spread through the feces of people who have the virus. If a person with the virus doesn’t wash their hands after going to the bathroom, feces can get on their hands and can transfer to objects, food and drinks. When these things are shared, other people can unknowingly catch the virus. If a person who has the virus comes in close contact or touches other people—this includes sex—the virus can also spread.
Every county in Florida is offering free Hep A vaccines to people who are high risk. Etienne says she and her peers in the health industry are trying to spread the word about how effective the vaccine is.
“One dose of the vaccine is going to protect you 93 percent of the time,” she says.