Hepatitis A death toll climbs to 17 in San Diego

SAN DIEGO -- One more death and additional new cases were reported Tuesday as a result of the hepatitis A outbreak in the San Diego County region, prompting the Board of Supervisors to keep a public health emergency declaration in place.

Dr. Wilma Wooten, the county's public health officer, said the death toll has climbed to 17, with 17 additional cases and 10 more hospitalizations this week.

A total of 461 cases have been confirmed in the region, in what has been described as the largest outbreak of the virus in decades. The outbreak began last November, but was not identified until March. The youngest person to be infected was a 5-year-old who had not been previously vaccinated, Wooten said.

The health crisis has primarily hit the homeless population, accounting for 232 cases. About 154 of those were illicit drug users, she said.

Health officials say the most effective way to fight the contagious liver disease is by vaccinating at-risk populations, which includee first responders, food handlers, health care professionals, service workers who interact with the homeless, workers in substance abuse programs and public transit employees.

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 40,000 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.

Other sanitation measures have included the installment of 41 hand-washing stations and a new 24-hour restroom facility in the downtown area, where homeless people tend to congregate. Currently, there are 22 public restrooms downtown. The operating hours of 14 restrooms in Balboa Park have also been expanded to 24 hours a day, and city street are being power-washed and bleached on a regular basis.