A recent Hepatitis A outbreak in Utah has exposed thousands of people to the virus, and it continues to spread like wildfire despite the best efforts of public health officials to keep it contained.  Fortunately, Hepatitis A is not a killer, but it can cause people to become seriously ill for months as the virus runs its course.  Let’s take a closer look at how easy it is for the virus to spread, how vulnerable we are to exposure, and what we can do to protect ourselves.

Long Incubation Period

One of the problems with Hepatitis A is that it has a long incubation period, and people who are infected are highly-contagious long before symptoms develop.  It is also very easy to transmit as it can be passed along via person to person contact as well as coming into contact with contaminated surfaces, food and drinks.

By the time officials have identified a convenience store and restaurant as two points of origin, thousands of people have been exposed.  The concern is that these people will pass on the infection to friends, family members, coworkers and the general public as they go about their normal activities.  Consequently, we could see cases skyrocket before it is able to be contained.

Containing the Outbreak

The first move by public health officials was to close and decontaminate places that are thought to be the source of the outbreak.  However, this does little to stop the virus from spreading through people who are already infected.  Consequently, the damage has been done, and all people can do is wait to see how much the outbreak will spread.

Officials are also asking people who may have been exposed to get tested even if they are asymptomatic.  The hope is that infected individuals can be isolated and receive treatment before passing the virus to others.  Unfortunately, this requires the voluntary cooperation of people who may not want to come forward and reveal that they may be infected.

Officials are also encouraging people to get vaccinated in order to minimize their chances of becoming infected.  Fortunately, the vaccine can also inhibit the virus from taking hold in people who have already been infected if they get vaccinated within a few days after exposure.  This is probably the best way to contain the outbreak, but it also involves the voluntary cooperation of the public, and it’s safe to say that many people won’t bother to get the vaccine.  Consequently, this outbreak may be far from over, and there’s a good chance that it will spread to other states over the next couple of months.

We’re More Vulnerable than We Think

Imagine if the same thing were to occur with a virus that is far-more dangerous and difficult to treat.  The ramifications could be disastrous, and millions of people could conceivably be exposed in a short amount of time.  It’s been a long time since we’ve experienced a deadly pandemic in this country, but this recent outbreak illustrates how vulnerable the population at large is despite the efforts of public health officials to keep outbreaks contained.

Unfortunately, there is little that we can do to prevent the spread of viruses, but we can take basic precautions to minimize the chances of becoming infected.  Be vigilant when it comes to washing hands and following other basic sanitary guidelines.  Make sure that you quarantine yourself if you’re sick, and do what you can to stay away from people who are.

Let this outbreak serve as a reminder of our inherent vulnerability to infectious diseases.  Take time to think of how to incorporate prevention and containment in your preparedness efforts, and be aware of possible threats that may be emerging at any given point in time.  A massive outbreak can have a devastating impact on our population in a short amount of time, and it’s important to do what we can to be prepared for this possibility.