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BURLINGTON — Vermont is in the early stages of an outbreak of hepatitis, the Vermont Department of Health announced Thursday. Vermont joins 30 other states, including New Hampshire and Massachusetts.

In 2019, Vermont had 12 cases of acute hepatitis A virus (HAV) infection, compared with the previous five-year average of three cases per year. Of the 12 cases, 58 percent were hospitalized. Many Vermont counties have reported cases, with most in the southern part of the state.

Health Commissioner Mark Levine, M.D., said case number trends have prompted the department to make the formal declaration.

"We've been anticipating an outbreak of hepatitis A cases here from monitoring how this has evolved in other states," Levine said. "We are working closely with health care providers to ensure that Vermonters are vaccinated, and with our community partners to get the word out to people who are at high risk of infection, some of whom can be difficult to reach."

According to the Department of Health, hepatitis A is a liver infection caused by the Hepatitis A virus. Symptoms can range from a mild infection to a more serious illness, including liver failure and death. The virus is generally spread by person-to-person contact, primarily through the fecal-oral route. Thorough handwashing and sanitary practices are important to help prevent it from spreading.

The department said that the majority of cases in Vermont and nationally are among people with these risk factors:

- People with a history of drug use

- People who are experiencing unstable housing or homelessness

- Individuals who are currently or who were recently incarcerated

- People with chronic liver disease including cirrhosis, hepatitis B, or hepatitis C

- Men who have sex with men.

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The best way to prevent hepatitis A infection is to get vaccinated, the department said. In addition, because of the nature of the virus, access to sanitation, restroom facilities and handwashing stations is important for preventing its spread.

Levine said it's very important that people who are at higher risk of infection get vaccinated to help prevent spread of the virus. "Hepatitis A is a vaccine-preventable disease, and a single dose provides 95 percent protection. The vaccine is safe and is now recommended during childhood," he said.

Case numbers are also up for Hepatitis B. Vermont is watching this as well, because many of the same groups are at risk, the department said.

Hepatitis B is spread by exposure to infected blood, such as from sharing needles, syringes or other drug preparation equipment, by contact with blood or skin wounds and sores of an infected person, and by having sex with a partner who engages in high-risk behaviors. Acute infection is a short-term illness that happens within the first six months after exposure to the virus. It can lead to chronic infection and can cause mild illness with few or no symptoms, or more serious conditions requiring hospitalization.

There have been nine cases of acute hepatitis B virus (HBV) infection, compared with the previous five-year average of fewer than three cases per year, the department said.

The Department of Health has been offering free hepatitis A vaccine clinics in places that serve high-risk individuals, such as shelters, syringe services programs, and meal sites. Clinics have also been held in all Vermont correctional facilities.

Vermonters without insurance can contact their Local Health Office for information about free vaccine clinics.

The Bennington Local Health Office is located at 324 Main St., Suite 2, and can be reached at 802-447-3531 or 802-447-6406. The office serves Arlington, Bennington, Dorset, Glastenbury, Landgrove, Manchester, Peru, Pownal, Readsboro, Rupert, Sandgate, Searsburg, Shaftsbury, Stamford, Sunderland, Winhall and Woodford.

People are encouraged to contact their health care provider to receive the two or three dose Hepatitis B vaccine series. This vaccine is also available at Local Health Offices to anyone under the age of 65.


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