Hepatitis A vaccination drive launched in Toowoomba, Queensland, after two cases detected

Health officials in southern Queensland are working to identify close contacts of two people infected with locally acquired cases of hepatitis A.

A  Darling Downs Health Unit public health physician Priya Janagaraj said the residents were active in the community, and a child attended the Darling Heights State School on May 14.

Dr Janagaraj said a free pop-up vaccination clinic at the school would be set up this week to help protect staff, students and their families.

“Not a lot of people would have been vaccinated against hepatitis A, so we want to stop the spread,” she said.

The virus, which can take up to 50 days to incubate, causes inflammation of the liver and can lead to fevers, nausea, vomiting, diarrhoea, and jaundice.

It is usually spread by contact with contaminated food or contaminated water sources.

Dr Janagaraj said while the disease was usually asymptomatic in children under five, it posed a health risk to people aged over 40.

“They can develop complications from the hepatitis A virus, that includes having full-blown liver failure as a rare complication and also having things like gall bladder infections,” she said.

University of New South Wales professor Peter White said the virus could be “quite nasty” for those who became infected.

“Hepatitis A is quite a transmissible virus through the faecal-oral route,” he said.

“You could be sick for up to six weeks or more and then quite a slow convalescent period after that.”

Rare virus increasing in Australia

The disease is rare in Australia, but according to the latest data from the National Notifiable Diseases Surveillance System, there have been 119 cases of hepatitis A so far this year.

Thirteen cases were reported between May 15 and 28, a threefold increase compared to the same period last year.

A Queensland Health spokesperson said 26 cases had been detected in the state so far in 2023 — almost two times above the average for the past five years.

A hepatitis A case was detected at Noosa in May, and multiple cases were detected in March, with a cluster confirmed in Gympie after a family returned from overseas in January.

Dr Janagaraj said the increase was likely due to the reopening of international borders.

“Since the borders have reopened, a lot of the cases have been imported from overseas.

“What we’ve got now is two locally acquired cases [in southern Queensland], and we are still working with the other public health units to establish the links.”

Hygiene standards

Professor White said the disease was common in Australia until the 1970s when the sanitation standards improved.

He said it remained endemic in developing countries like India and Mexico.

“Hepatitis A follows sanitisation standards. It’s not very prevalent in developed countries, and … it’s endemic in developing countries.”

Professor White said the hepatitis A vaccine, which is given in two doses six months apart, would give people lifelong protection from the virus.

Officials have also encouraged people to practice good hygiene and hand washing to prevent the spread of hepatitis A.

People, who develop any symptoms of the virus, are being urged to see their doctor and not return to school, work, or childcare until they are no longer infectious, which is at least seven days after the onset of jaundice.

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