Hepatitis A threat continues for Atlanta gay, bi men

Public health officials are warning gay and bisexual Atlanta men to get hepatitis A vaccinations despite reports that an outbreak has been stemmed. 

The number of new cases has decreased both in Fulton County and statewide since officials sounded the alarm in April about the outbreak. But gay and bi men accounted for the majority of new cases in Fulton and should get vaccinated, according to David Holland, chief clinical officer for medical and preventative services at the Fulton County Board of Health.

“I think the message is that numbers are down however they are still way, way higher than normal,” he told Project Q Atlanta. “It’s not enough yet to be considered a trend. We certainly hope that it continues.”

Hepatitis A is spread through fecal to oral contact. The sexual practices of gay men put them at increased risk of getting the infection, according to Holland (photo).

There were only two new cases of hepatitis A in Fulton between June and December 2018, according to the Fulton Board of Health. The numbers shot up in 2019, driven by an outbreak that started in Southern California in 2017 and moved across the country.

There were 39 new cases in Fulton between January and June 2019. There have been 20 new cases since then as of Oct. 26.

Gay and bi men accounted for 51 percent of the new hepatitis A infections in Fulton since June 2018. Those living with HIV accounted for 39 percent of new hepatitis A infections since that time, drug users accounted for 30 percent, food handlers for 10 percent, the homeless for eight percent and international travelers for seven percent.

Atlanta had the fourth-highest number of new hepatitis A infections in the state with 58 since June 2018, according to the Georgia Department of Public Health. Dalton had 64 new cases since that time, Augusta had 145 and Rome had 314.

There were 67 new cases of hepatitis A statewide between June and December 2018. There were 39 new cases in January 2019 alone, and the numbers shot up to a high of 91 in April. It’s gradually decreased since then, but September’s numbers were still extremely high at 65 new cases.

The Georgia Department of Public Health worked aggressively to provide vaccinations to those most at risk of getting infected, according to spokesperson Nancy Nydam.

“We know the efforts have been successful, but we cannot be complacent,” she told Project Q. “Georgia’s sustained, targeted vaccination efforts will strive to keep the hepatitis A outbreak from spreading uncontrollably.”

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.

There have been over 27,000 new cases resulting in nearly 17,000 hospitalizations and 275 deaths nationwide since the outbreak began, according to the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention.

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