Worry about potential Dallas homeless hepatitis A outbreak

Dallas County health officials are taking steps to prevent an outbreak of hepatitis A among the homeless population.

California is experiencing the outbreak. Mass vaccinations are being administered in San Diego after hundreds of homeless people have been sickened. Some have even died.

Hepatitis A can spread in unsanitary close living conditions. The virus has a 15 to 50 day incubation period and attacks the liver. It is the only foodborne disease preventable by vaccine and is spread through food or water contaminated by the stool of an infected person.

For homeless who are just trying to hang on, hygiene is not a high priority.

“That increases the possibility of fecal material getting on counters surfaces, food, getting in water they might be sharing where we could potentially have an outbreak of hepatitis A,” explained Dallas County Health and Human Services Medical Director Dr. Christopher Perkins.

While there is no outbreak in Dallas, hepatitis A cases have been rising. In 2015, there were only 14 cases. In 2016, that number grew to 37. So far in 2017, 40 hepatitis A cases have been reported in Dallas County.

“We're trying to do deeper research to see if there is a possible homeless situation that we have in the cases we have here to date,” Perkins said. “The health department has been in dialog with the city of Dallas regarding this potential problem as we know about in San Diego as well as LA counties.”

Los Angeles County has declared a hepatitis outbreak and San Diego County has declared a health emergency. Most of the West Coast cases are among the homeless. There are more than 500 people sick in San Diego. Sixteen people have died.

Power washing with a chlorine solution is already happening in Dallas to try and keep the fecally transmitted disease at bay. But hepatitis A is not the only disease Dallas is concerned about.

“There's hepatitis B, hepatitis C. So there's other hepatitis' as well as enteric diseases such as E. coli, salmonella, Shigella. That’s why it’s important that we have handwashing stations and proper toiletry places for all our citizens,” Perkins said. “I think that our elected officials, they're gonna look into the problem hopefully to give us a resolution.”

Mayor Mike Rawlings is set to give his state of the homeless speech on Thursday. He’ll reveal if that includes sanitary stations where people can wash hands with soap and water to help fight the spread of illnesses in a population already vulnerable.

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