Illustration by Anya Chytrowski

In California, over five hundred people have been infected and nineteen have died from the ongoing hepatitis A outbreak. The majority of those who have contracted the disease have been homeless and/or illicit drug users due to the manner in which hepatitis A spreads. The city of Berkeley is taking measures to prevent the spread of the disease to Berkeley’s large homeless population.

Following the outbreak, which originated in San Diego County and spread to Santa Cruz County and Los Angeles County, Governor Jerry Brown declared California to be in a state of emergency. 395 people have been hospitalized. The virus has spread through the homeless community in particular because of their lack of clean water to wash hands and lower vaccination rate. This makes Berkeley especially vulnerable to an outbreak, according to the California Department of Public Health.

The Berkeley City Council passed an item which directed the city manager to “include temporary hand washing stations and an increase in the number of publicly accessible restroom facilities throughout the city.” The item also activated Berkeley’s Emergency Operations Center (EOC). The center was created last winter to help shelter homeless people during a particularly cold and stormy winter. Now, the EOC is being instructed to “develop and begin implementing prevention and education plans for Hepatitis A.” A homeless man said that although he appreciated the services, he wished it didn’t take a hepatitis scare to provide the basic services of the EOC to homeless folk in Berkeley.

The measures Berkeley has taken so far in response to the outbreak are strictly preventative, as there has yet to be a case of the disease reported in Alameda County. The office of the mayor of Berkeley, Jesse Arreguin, said, “Berkeley takes public health very seriously … and we wanted to be proactive to make sure we did not experience a similar outbreak in our city. So far, we have been fortunate that we have not experienced an outbreak and we want to keep it that way.”

The California Department of Public Health has been working to vaccinate at risk individuals in San Diego County and Santa Cruz County. Although there is an extremely effective vaccination for hepatitis A, the vast majority of California adults are not vaccinated, as the state only started recommending the vaccine be given to children in 1999. According to an academic article entitled “Hepatitis A Virus among Drug Users and the Role of Vaccination,” drug users and homeless people are the least likely to get vaccinated, and also some of the most likely to get infected.

At the moment, the outbreak is not well contained, and experts do not know what is yet to come. To stay safe, make sure you and those around you are vaccinated.