Vaccinations encouraged as 138 hepatitis A cases reported in Marion County this year

Marion County is continuing to see an increase in cases of hepatitis A – 138 have been reported this year – and local residents are being encouraged to get vaccinated for the virus.

To help with the effort, the Florida Department of Health in Marion County is holding its second drive-through hepatitis A vaccination event on Saturday, Nov. 2 from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. at its Ocala office (1801 SE 32nd Ave.). Anyone who would like to receive the hepatitis A vaccine can come to the event to get the free shot.

The hepatitis A vaccine is a two-series shot, with each dose given six months apart. The first shot provides 95 percent protection, but both shots are needed to provide long-term protection. This means people who obtained their first hepatitis A shot at the department’s April drive-through event should come to the Nov. 2 event to complete the shot series.

The health department recommends that individuals who are either high-risk for contracting the virus or high-risk for serious complications from the virus get vaccinated. This includes, but isn’t limited to, people who:

  • Use injected or illicit drugs;
  • Are experiencing homelessness;
  • Are diagnosed with underlying liver disease;
  • Work with homeless or intravenous drug users outside of a healthcare setting;
  • Are over 60 and have a serious underlying medical condition;
  • Are first responders; and
  • Come into direct contact with others who have the virus.

The Department of Health in Marion County has tracked 138 total cases of the virus in the county since the start of January, the sixth highest number of cases in the state. The department has been offering free hepatitis A vaccinations since early 2019 to help combat the increase in cases locally. State Surgeon General Dr. Scott Rivkees declared a public health emergency on Aug. 1 in response to the hepatitis A outbreak in the Sunshine State.

Hepatitis A is a highly contagious, vaccine-preventable illness that attacks the liver and can cause symptoms of abdominal pain, nausea, vomiting, dark urine, and yellow skin and eyes. Symptoms typically last less than two months but can last up to six months. Individuals are contagious with the virus for up to two weeks before showing symptoms. Not everyone who becomes ill with the virus shows symptoms.

The virus spreads through feces. If people with the virus don’t wash their hands well after going to the bathroom, feces can get on their hands and can transfer to objects, food and drinks. When these things are shared, other people can unknowingly swallow the virus. If a person who has the virus comes in close contact or touches other people – this includes sex – the virus also can spread. This virus is hardy and can live on surfaces for more than a month.

The best way to prevent hepatitis A infection is through the vaccine. It’s also important to practice good hand hygiene, including thoroughly washing hands with soap and water after using the bathroom, changing diapers, and before preparing or eating food, and to avoid sharing food, drinks, drugs or cigarettes. Alcohol-based hand sanitizer does not kill the hepatitis A virus.

For more information on hepatitis A, click HERE. For more information on the disease in Florida, click HERE.

Marion County has had two high-profile hepatitis A scares this year. In June, the Department of Health identified a case in a food service worker at Zaxby’s, located at 6033 SW Highway 200. The person worked at the eatery while infectious from May 13 to June 2 and anyone who ate or drank there between May 22 and June 22 was advised to be vaccinated.

In August, the health department announced that an employee at Charlie Horse Restaurant and Lounge, located at 2426 E Silver Springs Blvd., may have been infectious from July 18 to Aug. 1. Vaccinations were recommended for those who ate or drank at the restaurant between July 24 and Aug. 1.