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Hepatitis A 'outbreak' has hit LA County, says health director

FILE - This Tuesday, Jan. 26, 2016 file photo shows tents from a homeless encampment line a street in downtown Los Angeles. Richard Vogel/AP

Los Angeles County is now faced with its very own hepatitis A outbreak, the county's public health director told the Board of Supervisors Tuesday.

The declaration comes as both L.A. and Orange counties have been enacting measures to prevent the spread of the disease after San Diego and Santa Cruz counties witnessed an outbreak that has killed 16 people and hospitalized nearly 300.

There are two locally acquired cases of the disease that cannot be traced to the outbreaks in San Diego and Santa Cruz counties, L.A. County Department of Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer told the board.

"These are not imported cases, these are cases that people actually became infected because they were in contact with somebody in L.A. County," she explained.

The state of California and L.A. County define an "outbreak" as having at least two locally acquired cases of a disease.

Ferrer also said there are five confirmed cases in the county that are connected to the outbreaks in San Diego and Santa Cruz counties.

The San Diego outbreak, which has infected more than 400 people, spread primarily among homeless people and illicit drug users. Those who provide services to these populations have also been infected.

"The safest thing you can do if you’re in contact with high-risk populations or you’re worried about your possible exposure at this point is to, in fact, get vaccinated," she said. "We are very early in an outbreak and the more people that get vaccinated who are in the high-risk populations and in service of those who are at high risk, the smaller the outbreak will end up being in L.A. County."

Vaccinating homeless people and their service providers is critical to preventing the outbreak from spreading, said officials in Orange and L.A. counties earlier this week.

Ferrer said her department is aiming to vaccinate 40,000 homeless people to boost herd immunity and stop the spread of the disease. 

"It will take a while to vaccinate this many people," she said, noting that some homeless people have not been receptive to receiving the vaccine. "We are looking at months of being out there offering vaccine." This is a transient community so it’s important to see this effort as a "long-term commitment," added Ferrer.

"We’ll be passing out, obviously, hand sanitizer as part of our street outreach, we’ve obviously ordered enough vaccine so we can continue to be able to offer free vaccine," she said. "One thing about being in an outbreak situation is we’re eligible for low-cost/free vaccine from the state and we’ve already put in our orders for that. So I feel pretty confident that we’re in really good shape."

Hepatitis A is a highly contagious liver infection caused by a virus. It's usually transmitted through contaminated food or water. It can cause liver disease, lasting a few weeks to months. In some cases, it can be fatal.

The disease can cause fever, fatigue, nausea, loss of appetite, jaundice, stomach pain, vomiting, dark urine, pale stools and diarrhea. Some of those infected don't develop symptoms. 

Over the last five years, there were between 34 and 60 cases annually in L.A. County.

Check back for updates to this story.