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Hepatitis A Outbreak In Pennsylvania Has Health Officials Issuing New Warnings

PHILADELPHIA (CBS) -- A hepatitis A outbreak in Pennsylvania has new warnings from state and local health officials about the contagious disease. It's a trend that has been sweeping parts of the country and now it's hit the Philadelphia area in a big way.

The number of confirmed cases of Hepatitis A has spiked dramatically this year.

Fortunately, there's a vaccine that's been recommended for those at high risk.

The spike in Hepatitis A cases has been seen mainly among the homeless and people who use drugs. The liver infection is caused by fecal contamination.

"It's from not washing your hands properly after you've used the bathroom or gone to the bathroom, not washing your hands properly and touching food items," Dr. Steven Alles of Philadelphia's Department of Health said.

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"One of the challenges we have with Hep A is that it takes up to a month from the time you are exposed to when you get symptoms. That's challenging for us because you can transmit it one to two weeks before you get your first symptom."

The symptoms are mainly gastrointestinal. There is no cure.

Hepatitis A has suddenly sky-rocketed in Pennsylvania with an 83% increase, which prompted the state health department to declare an outbreak.

That's mainly centered in the southeast. In Philadelphia, there are 117 confirmed cases of hepatitis A so far this year -- up dramatically over previous years.

hep a graphic
(Credit: CBS3)

"The best thing about Hep A is that there is a vaccine that is safe and effective," Alles said.

The hepatitis A vaccine has been routinely given to children for over a decade, but many adults have not been vaccinated.

The health department will be offering the vaccine at McPherson Square Library in Kensington on Tuesday and Thursday.

It's being recommended for high-risk populations. In addition to the vaccine, good hand washing, especially after bathroom use it the best prevention.

People who get hepatitis A may feel sick for a few weeks to several months, but usually recover completely and do not have lasting liver damage.

In rare cases, hepatitis A can cause liver failure and even death.

The vaccinations are being distributed Tuesday and Thursday in Kensington are free. That neighborhood is being targeted because of the ongoing drug problem.

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