SALT LAKE CITY — Two people have died from hepatitis A, marking the first deaths amid an outbreak of the disease in Utah, health officials said Tuesday.
Both victims were Salt Lake County residents, the county's health department said.
One died late last month, but the other person died in January.
"Due to other health conditions affecting the individual, officials were waiting on confirmatory tests to declare an official cause of death" for the initial victim, Salt Lake County Health Department spokesman Nicholas Rupp said in a release.
He said the fatal cases are related to a hepatitis A outbreak centered in Salt Lake County that began last May and has infected 212 people statewide since then.
"Their test came back positive for the outbreak strain. So they are linked to the current outbreak happening here and in other states," said Dr. Dagmar Vitek, medical director of the county health department.
The victims are adults, ages 18 to 65, according to Vitek. Rupp said the county is unable to further identify the victims "due to medical privacy laws."
The outbreak has been most prevalent among those who are homeless, who are or were recently incarcerated or who use illicit drugs, public health leaders have said. The two who died "belonged to one or more" of those populations, Rupp said.
However, those who do not belong to at-risk populations should not be complacent about the outbreak, Rupp has said. Customers of a pair of restaurants in Spanish Fork and a convenience store in West Jordan were warned in December and January that an employee at each of those establishments was infected with hepatitis A.
Some of those potentially affected customers were told to get vaccines, which Rupp has said can be effective for up to two weeks after exposure.
In February, the Salt Lake County Board of Health began mandating that all food workers at an eatery be vaccinated if any of their co-workers had been exposed to hepatitis A. Vitek said neither of the victims who died were restaurant workers.
The Salt Lake County Health Department "has conducted targeted vaccination and awareness campaigns to try to control the outbreak, including holding on-site vaccination clinics at community locations where individuals thought to be at high risk congregate," Rupp said.
"The department has also distributed thousands of hygiene kits to people in need; the kits contain soap, disinfectant wipes, and other products encouraging hand washing and good hygiene," he said.
Besides vaccines, proper hand washing after using the bathroom and before eating or preparing food is the best way to prevent hepatitis A, according to Rupp. The virus can be spread through even a tiny amount of an infected person's feces and is easily transmitted through contaminated food.
Vitek said the county's response to the outbreak is "concentrating on ... sanitation, vaccination and education." She said the health department's vaccination campaign has been "enormous," numbering more than 9,000 kits administered to people in high-risk populations.
"It's really sad that we have to report that people are dying because it's a vaccine-preventable disease," she said.
Hepatitis A can take several weeks before causing noticeable symptoms, so tracking precisely when the worst of the outbreak is over is difficult. However, Vitek feels optimistic.
"It looks like maybe it has peaked already and (that) we are on the downward slope," she said.2 comments on this story
Hepatitis A causes an inflamed liver, resulting in several symptoms that can become severe, including sudden vomiting, fatigue, clay-colored stool, stomach pain, joint pain and jaundice, according to the Mayo Clinic.
Hepatitis A outbreaks in areas surrounding San Diego, Detroit and Louisville, Kentucky, have led to dozens of deaths since last year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
"We were actually fortunate that, as we've been seeing the cases, that until now we did not have any deaths," Vitek said.