Gay, bi men at center of hepatitis A outbreak in Atlanta

Public health officials are calling on widespread vaccinations for gay and bisexual men in metro Atlanta to stem a hepatitis A outbreak.

Gay and bisexual men, drug users and the homeless are driving the outbreak, according to David Holland, chief clinical officer for medical and preventative services at the Fulton County Board of Health.

“Hepatitis A is spread through the fecal-oral route,” he said. “Various sexual practices that gay men engage in put them at increased risk of getting hepatitis A.”

The outbreak of the disease started in Southern California in 2017 and has been moving across the country since then, according to Holland (photo).

“We knew it was coming, so we’ve been preemptively vaccinating our [homeless] shelter residents since last July in anticipation of this,” he told Project Q Atlanta.

There have been 214 hepatitis A cases statewide so far this year, according to the AJC. There were only 24 cases in 2017 and 37 cases in 2016. Metro Atlanta accounts for 34 of the cases in 2019, including 19 in Fulton County. The county usually sees less than 10 hepatitis A cases a year, according to Holland.

The Augusta area and northwest Georgia are other hot spots, according to the AJC.

Hepatitis A causes an illness that usually lasts about a week and can be “very severe,” according to Holland. The effects include abdominal pain, nausea, jaundice and extreme fatigue.

“For most people it’s self-limited and just goes away, although it will knock you down pretty bad for a week,” he said.

There have been 15,000 hepatitis A cases resulting in 8,500 hospitalizations and 140 deaths in the U.S. since the outbreak began, according to the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention

“In this particular outbreak, especially in Southern California, they’ve seen an excessive number of deaths from it that haven’t been seen as it’s moved east yet,” Holland said. “But we’re obviously very concerned about this particular outbreak.”

A vaccine will prevent infection, and routine hepatitis A vaccination is recommended for all men who have sex with men, according to Holland.

“In that regard, this is nothing new,” he said. “It’s just that usually there’s not a lot of it around, so we’re recommending everyone get a routine vaccination.”

Fulton County residents that are in one of the risk groups can get a free hepatitis A vaccination at any county health center, according to Holland.