In the past six weeks, there have been as many reported cases of hepatitis A in King County as there have been during entire years in the last decade, according to Public Health — Seattle & King County.
The recent cases — many among people who are living outside or drug users — have included one death.
Since late January, 49 King County residents infected with hepatitis A have been reported to the public-health agency, including 17 in the six-week period between Nov. 24 and Jan. 4. In the six weeks before that, five people became sick.
By comparison, in the past decade, there have been five to 16 cases reported in King County each year.
In July 2019, the state Department of Health declared a statewide hepatitis A outbreak. There have been 154 cases of the disease reported in the state between April 1, 2019, and Jan. 3, 2020.
Last month, a homeless King County man died after being hospitalized with acute hepatitis A. Hepatitis A is not typically life-threatening, but can be in people with underlying health conditions and can cause liver failure.
“People who are living homeless or who are using drugs are more likely to have underlying health conditions that can be worsened by hepatitis A,” said Dr. Jeff Duchin, public-health officer, said in a statement. “As a result, this community is particularly at-risk for developing serious and life-threatening illnesses if infected with hepatitis A.”
People infected with hepatitis A can spread the virus to others up to two weeks before symptoms begin, and most people don’t develop symptoms for a month after being infected. So it can take a long time to identify new cases and prevent further spread.
In the fall of 2017, the public-health agency began holding free hepatitis A vaccination clinics for people living outdoors — before officials had identified any cases among that community.
That outreach will continue this year, with hepatitis clinics occurring “nearly every day,” the statement said.