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Vaccine shortage complicates efforts to quell hepatitis A outbreaks

Stephanie O'Neill, Kaiser Health News on

Published in News & Features

San Diego County, battling a deadly outbreak of hepatitis A, is postponing an outreach campaign to provide the second of two inoculations against the contagious liver disease until a national shortage of the vaccine is resolved, the county's chief public health officer said.

"Our goal is to get that vaccine in as many arms as possible for that first dose," said Dr. Wilma Wooten, who is leading the fight against an epidemic that has ravaged unsanitary homeless encampments in San Diego County for the past year, sickening 544 people and killing 20 of them as of Nov. 6.

Nurses and other county medical workers are fanning out across the most at-risk areas to offer onsite inoculations, and if they run into people who are due for the second shot, they will still give it to them, said Wooten, Public Health Director at the county's Health and Human Services Agency.

The two hepatitis A vaccinations, considered the best way to control the spread of the virus, should be administered six months apart. The first shot is the most important, Wooten said, because it protects people 90 to 95 percent of the time against the virus that causes the disease. The second shot raises the protection level to "close to 100 percent," she said.

So far, 90,735 people have received vaccinations in San Diego County -- most of them the first of the two-shot series, according to the county's health agency.

The San Diego outbreak, and a number of others in California and across the United States, have generated a spike in demand for hepatitis A vaccine and put a squeeze on supplies, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Unexpectedly high demand worldwide has constrained availability outside the U.S. as well, the agency said.

Merck & Co. and GlaxoSmithKline, the two companies with approval from the Food and Drug Administration to sell the vaccine in the United States, said they have been hard-pressed to keep up with the demand and are working to boost their production.

The effects of hepatitis A can range from mild to fatal. In addition to the deaths in San Diego, an outbreak of the illness in Michigan has sickened 486 people and killed 19, as of last Friday, according to the Michigan Department of Health & Human Services.

Los Angeles and Santa Cruz counties are also fighting the illness, and infections linked to California's outbreaks are spreading to homeless people in Utah and Arizona, and to men engaging in gay sex in Colorado, the CDC said. In New York City, health officials are confronting a smaller outbreak, mostly among gay or bisexual men.

The deadly nature of the epidemics in San Diego and Michigan worries public health officials the most, said Dr. Noele Nelson, a CDC specialist in hepatitis vaccine research and policy. "The number of deaths in the Michigan and San Diego outbreaks are quite high from what we've seen in the past," she told members of the CDC's Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices at a late-October meeting in Atlanta.

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