As South Carolina's hepatitis A outbreak continues, the Department of Health and Environmental Control has issued a warning that a more serious outbreak among the general public could occur if appropriate action is not taken.

Aiken County has reported more hepatitis A cases than any other area of the state. More than 30% of the outbreak – 72 cases – have been reported in Aiken County as of July 25. That is significantly greater than Lexington County, where the second-highest number of cases – 42 as of July – have been reported. 

In a Thursday press release, DHEC detailed the latest trends of the outbreak and how the state can curb the spread of hepatitis A, a contagious liver disease that often presents with flu-like symptoms.

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A DHEC case map of hepatitis A in South Carolina depicts Aiken County compared to the rest of the state. The largest portion of the statewide hepatitis A epidemic has occurred in Aiken County.

Primarily, DHEC is advocating for the vaccination of individuals in high-risk groups who could contract hepatitis A more easily than others. 

"It is challenging to control hepatitis A outbreaks if those in risk groups don't seek or have access to immunization services,” said Dr. Linda Bell, a physician and state epidemiologist, in the press release. “Many people in high-risk groups cannot or will not visit DHEC clinics … We need organizations and individuals who offer services to these groups to help convince those who need it most to get vaccinated."

These high-risk groups include drug users, the homeless, men who have sexual relations with other men and those who have been incarcerated or recently incarcerated.

Of the 225 hepatitis A cases that have been reported in South Carolina, over half of the infected individuals reported drug use.

The department is asking organizations such as homeless shelters, prisons or drug treatment programs, that work frequently with these populations to partner with DHEC to help at-risk individuals receive treatment and immunization against the disease.

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Diagnosis of when hepatitis A infections occurred, broken down by month. This data is still subject to change.

The press release states that the outbreak is "driven by infections among people in high-risk groups," and the disease is spread most commonly through close contact with someone who has been infected. This can be a household member, a sexual partner or by sharing personal items with an infected person.

Although four restaurants in Aiken County reported to DHEC that one or more employees were found to be infected with hepatitis A, DHEC says the possibility of spreading the disease in a restaurant setting is low.

Currently, only nine food handlers in South Carolina have tested positive for hepatitis A – approximately 4% of the total outbreak. There have been no reports of anyone infected with hepatitis A through eating or drinking at a restaurant, according to DHEC.

“A lot of attention has been given to food handlers who have tested positive, but this is not a food-borne outbreak, and the concern is not with the restaurants or the food they serve," Bell said.

Bell said the public's understanding of the "true threat of the outbreak" in the state is critical.

A contagious liver disease, hepatitis A is a viral infection that presents with symptoms such as fever, nausea and abdominal pain. Other symptoms, such as yellowing of the eyes and skin, can also occur. 

The virus usually causes these symptoms for a few weeks, and most people who are infected recover completely with no lasting liver damage. 

The hepatitis A vaccine is available from many health care providers and pharmacies. DHEC is currently offering no-cost hepatitis A vaccines to at-risk individuals. Children can also be administered the vaccine as a preventative measure.

To schedule an appointment for a vaccination at the Aiken County Health Department call 803-642-1687 or visit scdhec.gov/HealthClinics.

For more information, visit scdhec.gov.

Kristina Rackley is a general assignment reporter with the Aiken Standard.