Students help stop Hepatitis A Outbreak

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On Sept. 20, USC partnered with the LA Department of Public Health to issue a Health Alert to students, faculty, and staff on both the University Park campus and Health Science campus. They officially declared an outbreak of Hepatitis A, a highly contagious liver infection caused by the Hepatitis A virus (HAV).A similar outbreak occured in San Diego county last month on Aug. 28, which has amassed to a current total of 421 cases. In LA, ten new cases of HAV have arisen within a short time frame, officially considered an outbreak. Around 40-60 cases of HAV occur annually in LA, but the novel distinction is that these current cases are among homeless populations.

Only four miles from downtown Skid Row, USC is at the heart of a high-risk area concentrated with many homeless people. There are only nine local public bathroom facilities available for a six-hour time frame to the unsheltered homeless population in this area. Aside from these already inaccessible facilities, bathrooms are largely unavailable, leaving people to resort to insanitary defecation.

HAV is spread via sexual transmission, fecal contact, and improper handwashing, making the virus transmittable mainly through unhygienic practices. Because many homeless people lack sanitary bathroom accessibility and education of hygienic practices, HAV has easily spread between these high-risk people.

Another root cause of transmission of diseases like HAV is overcrowding. Vivek Shah, a senior majoring in biochemistry and minoring in philosophy, works directly with the local homeless population through USC’s Mobile Clinic.

Shah explains, “I work at the Pathways to Home Shelter, a homeless shelter for both men and women. In my experience, overcrowding is a major pathway for transmission. Actually, a men’s shelter I work at has now become so crowded that we cannot hold a clinic there.”

It is critically important that preventative measures such as sanitation and hygiene education be heavily implemented for vulnerable populations in Los Angeles County to prevent the spread of contagious diseases like HAV. Additionally, accessibility to preventative health services needs to become more widespread to prevent rapid disease transmission.

Based on his experience working with Mobile Clinic, Shah remarked, “What we need most are needle exchanges for IV-drug users and pop-up vaccination sites at Skid row, shelters, and local hospitals.”

Students can get involved in implementing such efforts by joining active organizations here on campus. Mobile Clinic, a team consisting of both undergraduates and health professionals, works with the homeless populations in the local area to provide medical care, health education, and social services that would otherwise be inaccessible to them.

For example, Shah explains, “At the Mobile Clinic we do TB tests, so that has helped preemptively stop the spread of TB.”

Organizations like Mobile Clinic demonstrate efforts that we could take to help prevent the spread of contagious diseases like TB and HAV. While these public health issues may seem beyond the scope of our control, there are opportunities for USC pre-health students to get involved in preventative programs like Mobile Clinic and beyond. 

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