A national outbreak of hepatitis A, which can cause nausea, jaundice and, in rare cases, kill, is sweeping through the state, Arizona health officials report.

Two people have died of the liver disease in Arizona. Since November, 353 cases have been reported, according to the Arizona Department of Health Services. Nearly 90 of those cases were reported in May in eight counties, including Maricopa County, the state’s most populous.

The best ways to protect against the highly contagious virus are through vaccination and regular handwashing, DHS said. Hepatitis A is contracted by eating food or drinking water contaminated with the virus through feces. That happens when an infected person does not wash his or her hands properly after using the restroom.

Common symptoms include a sudden fever, jaundice, abdominal pain, nausea and clay-colored bowel movements. The virus also affects liver function.

“If you are experiencing any symptoms of concern it is important to reach out to your health care provider,” said Jessica Rigler, DHS assistant director. “There is no treatment for hepatitis A.”

Mass produced food can be at risk. Last week, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration alerted consumers of a hepatitis A virus contamination of certain kinds of frozen blackberries under the Kroger “Private Selection” brands. According to the FDA, there have been no reported cases of hepatitis A linked to the consumption of the blackberries.

“Every year, we will often see smaller outbreaks of hepatitis A that are associated with a contaminated food product,” Rigler said.

About 80% of people who contracted hepatitis A over the course of seven months had to be hospitalized. Groups at a high risk of infection include young children or workers in child care, people who are homeless, use drugs or have been incarcerated, according to DHS.

State health officials encourage those who are at a high risk to contract the virus receive a hepatitis A vaccination. They recommend it for food-service workers, child-care workers and children who are at least 1 year-old and in a child care setting.

About 20 states are experiencing an outbreak of the virus, including nearly 4,700 cases in Kentucky and about 3,000 in Ohio, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Nationally, 189 people have died over three years.


Story by Abbagail Leon, Cronkite News