Students encouraged to immunize against Hepatitis

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    By Julie Cunningham

    Hepatitis A continues to be one of the most frequently reported vaccine-preventable diseases in the United States, and it has a high rate of infection in at least 14 western states.

    Utah is included in those 14 states, with Davis, Salt Lake, San Juan and Tooele counties reporting some of the highest rates in the state, according to the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention Web site. Rates are considered high when 20 or more cases are reported per 100,000 people.

    Utah County, however, has an average of 14.61 reported cases per 100,000, which is lower than the state average of 33.32, according to the Web site.

    “We”ll go months without hardly any cases of hepatitis A, and then we might get a half a dozen cases that are related to each other somehow,” said Dr. Joseph Miner, Utah County Health Department executive director. “It used to be hepatitis A in Utah was much higher than the national average, but now in recent years it”s much less and actually no more than the national average. That”s probably because of immunizations, which have been extremely helpful in decreasing the risk of hepatitis A.”

    Although Utah County has a lower rate of hepatitis A compared to other counties in Utah, it still is much higher than counties in eastern states, such as South Carolina, where every county has less than 5 reported cases per 100,000 people, according to the Web site.

    Hepatitis A is characterized by extreme fatigue, body tenderness over the liver, jaundice, dark urine and fever, Miner said. It is spread through contact with food or water that has been contaminated from the stool of an infected person.

    “Most people recover from it,” Miner said. “Even though it”s still a bad thing to get, it”s usually a milder and less serious disease than other forms of hepatitis.”

    Hepatitis B and C are more severe forms of hepatitis, and they are spread by contact with an infected person”s body fluids or blood, Miner said. Unprotected sexual contact, sharing needles or razors, receiving tattoos and working in occupations that deal with health care may increase the risks of contracting hepatitis B and C.

    These forms of hepatitis can lead to chronic and permanent liver damage or failure, even death, if left untreated, Miner said.

    There are ways people can decrease their chances of being infected with hepatitis, he said. Vaccines are available for hepatitis A and B that provide lifelong protection, though currently there is no vaccine for hepatitis C.

    International travelers are strongly recommended to receive the hepatitis A and B vaccine, said Dr. James Turner, executive director of student health at the University of Virginia. In endemic areas of the world, especially Asia and South America, the risks of contracting hepatitis A from contaminated food are very high.

    However, the risks are still very real in the United States, Miner said.

    “Say you”re going to eat a Christmas or Thanksgiving dinner that Aunt Mary fixed, and Aunt Mary comes down with hepatitis A. You”re going to wish you had received the vaccine,” he said.

    Although the hepatitis A and B vaccines are required before students can enroll in Utah public schools, they are not required for BYU students, said Dr. Gus Hoffman from the BYU Student Health Center. It is a university policy that BYU does not require certain immunizations unless there is a substantial risk to the student population, and for hepatitis B, there is no such risk.

    “Hepatitis B is a side effect of promiscuity, and if you”re a good person and living a good life and following the tenets of the church, there”s no reason to be worried about hepatitis B or C,” Hoffman said.

    An exception to this is people who work in the medical field and run the chance of being infected from the risks associated with that profession, Hoffman said.

    The same is true for Utah County at large, Miner said. Cases of hepatitis B and C are not seen that often in the Health Department, though they do arise occasionally.

    “It”s important to not think it never occurs,” Miner said. “We regularly see people who have sexually transmitted diseases, such as hepatitis B, and some of them are college students from Utah County and BYU students, but compared to most communities, there is much less here.”

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