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Nearly 2 dozen prisoners have hepatitis A

SAN DIEGO – Nearly two dozen cases of hepatitis A have been reported in seven jails throughout San Diego county, officials reported Wednesday.

Of 21 cases reported, 16 of the inmates came to jail already infected with hepatitis A and five contracted the virus while incarcerated, according to Sheriff’s Department spokesman Ryan Keim.

There are roughly 5,800 inmates across the county, and more than 2,300 have now received vaccinations.

Hepatitis A is typically spread when people eat contaminated food or water; more rarely, the virus is transmitted person-to-person through the “fecal-oral route,” said Dr. Wilma Wooten said.

Symptoms of hepatitis A, which include fever, fatigue, nausea and abdominal pain, usually last less than two months, although some people can be ill for as long as six months, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Although there are no special treatments, doctors recommend rest, adequate nutrition and fluids. Most people recover completely and do not have any lasting liver damage.

Wooten declared a state of emergency for San Diego county, home to about 3.3 million people, on September 1.

“The local emergency was declared to increase and heighten awareness of the seriousness of the outbreak,” she said.

On Tuesday, San Diego city and county officials launched a new effort to further educate the public about hepatitis A vaccinations and sanitary precautions.

County-led health teams have been mobilized since March to deal with the outbreak that has killed 16 people and infected about 400 others. County Supervisor Ron Roberts said sanitation and education efforts are being bolstered.

The most effective way to fight the contagious liver disease is by vaccinating at-risk populations, according to health officials. Most cases to date have been identified in patients who are homeless or drug users, but include workers at a health care facility working with those patients.

“This is our community and we are working day and night to take care of it,” Mayor Kevin Faulconer said. “It is going to require a sustained effort and everyone in San Diego County has a role to play.”

In the past several months, county officials have made vaccines available free to the public, including those in homeless encampments and other hepatitis A hot spots. Officials said more than 22,000 people have been vaccinated so far. To continue the momentum in battling the virus, the city of San Diego has partnered with the county to provide free vaccinations at public libraries through December.