GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Kent is the latest county to be added to the state’s designated hepatitis A outbreak area.
Inclusion in the outbreak district means the state will keep a closer eye on what’s going on in Kent County and there will be more coordination to fight the spread of the disease there.
The Kent County Health Department said it was recently notified of a fourth case among county residents. Since two cases were diagnosed within 100 days of each other, the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services included Kent County in the state’s outbreak jurisdiction.
The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services says it has handled 905 cases of hepatitis A since the outbreak began two years ago. That's nearly triple the amount of reports between 2011 and 2015.
The majority of those cases are in the southeast part of the state, as West Michigan has mostly avoided the virus.
Hepatitis A attacks the liver. It can cause fatigue, fever, nausea or loss of appetite, abdominal pain, joint pain, and jaundice. It is spread through the feces of the person infected.
"So if someone is infected with that and they use the restroom, and they don't wash their hands properly and they go and prepare food for someone — that's a real common way that Hepatitis A can be transmitted," epidemiologist Brian Hartl told 24 Hour News 8 Thursday.
Hartl said can also be transferred through some sexual activity.
'I don't think it's a time to panic," Hartl said. "Obviously we talked about the high risk groups, so those people are at most risk of getting the infection.
That includes men who have sex with other men, people who use illegal drugs, and the homeless population.
HQ in Grand Rapids is an organization that helps homeless 14 to 24-year-olds and is well aware of the outbreak.
HQ has a nurses' station on site, and while they don't carry the Hep A vaccine directly, they can connect teens to places that do.
"Health education is a massive gap for young people," HQ co-founder Shandra Steininger said. "So having professionals here in this space who can give accurate information is critical."
HQ and organizations like it partner with the Health Department, which has vaccines for people who need them.
Along with the vaccine, good hygiene plays a major role in preventing the spread.
"You're using the bathroom, you're touching a doorknob, you're touching a computer, you're touching a phone. Before you eat, wash those hands really well," Hartl said.
Most people recover, but some cases can advance to liver failure and death. The MDHHS says of the cases it's handled in the past two years, 726 people were hospitalized and 28 people died.
If you think you've been exposed to hepatitis A or start showing symptoms, call your doctor immediately.
If residents don’t have insurance or are underinsured, call the Kent County Health Department at 616.632.7200 for vaccine information.