The State Department of Public Health has identified a significant increase in Hepatitis A cases in Southern New Hampshire over the past three months and urges residents to be vaccinated to prevent the spread of the outbreak.
New Hampshire averages about seven new cases of hepatitis A each year, but since November, public health officials have been 13 cases. Seven of them were diagnosed in January alone.
"We are worried that these few cases over the last few months are just the tip of the iceberg and that when this virus enters our society, it spreads very quickly," said Dr. Benjamin Chan, the state's epidemiologist.
Infection usually occurs when a person consumes food or fluid that has been contaminated with a small, non-detectable amount of hepatitis A-positive fecal matter. The virus that affects the liver is worn in stools and can survive for weeks or months on some surfaces.
Five of the cases involved Hillsborough County residents. Rockingham and Strafford counties each had three new cases since November, while Cheshire and Merrimack County each had one.
"A majority of these people are people who experience homelessness, people with substance abuse," Chan said, but the risk extends beyond the most vulnerable communities.
Other states have recently experienced outbreaks of hepatitis C and HIV directly associated with needle division among opioid users. But while hepatitis A can be passed through intravenous drug use, it is not the most common pathway.
So far, New Hampshire has not seen an increase in HIV cases such as those documented in Boston and Lowell, Mass. in the past year.
Wendy LeBlanc, director of the HIV / AIDS Southern New Hampshire Task Force, said her team is monitoring the spread of the disease and hopes to expand its needle exchange program, helping to ensure drug users don & # 39; t share contaminated needles.
Because there is a vaccine for hepatitis A that has proven to be very effective, the public health service hopes that they may contain the spread of the disease.
Since the vaccine was introduced in 1995, infection has fallen by more than 95 percent, to an estimated 4,000 Americans in 2016, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Studies show that about 65 percent of the children in New Hampshire received the two-shot vaccine in the series, said chan. It is far less than 95 percent of children grafted against Hepatitis B, probably because vaccination is needed to get to school or childcare.
"This is a very effective vaccine," Chan said. "We encourage people in the community to talk to their healthcare providers about getting the vaccine … we are still in the early stages of an outbreak, but part of our concern given what we have seen in other states around the country is That this could grow rapidly. "
In the humanities in Manchester and Nashua, hepatitis A vaccinations are offered, as are many community health centers around the state.