Tagged Hepatitis

Hepatitis A Races Across The Country  

AKRON, Ohio — Just before the Fourth of July, Trenton Burrell began feeling run-down and achy. Soon he could barely muster the energy to walk from one room to another. A friend shared an alarming observation: “You’re turning yellow.”

Within days, the 40-year-old landed in the hospital, diagnosed with the highly contagious liver virus hepatitis A, which in Ohio has infected more than 3,220 people and killed at least 15.

Since 2016, the virus has spawned outbreaks in at least 29 states, starting with Michigan and California. It has sickened more than 23,600 people, sent the majority to the hospital and killed more than 230. All but California’s and Utah’s outbreaks are ongoing, and experts expect to eventually see the virus seep into every state.

Like a shadow, it follows the opioid epidemic, spreading mostly among drug users and the homeless. But anyone who hasn’t been vaccinated can get hepatitis A — as Akron health officials are finding out.

“It’s getting into the general public,” said Tracy Rodriguez, communicable disease supervisor for Summit County Public Health. “It’s scary.”

Summit County Public Health nurse Rachel Flossie (left) and communicable disease supervisor Tracy Rodriguez prepare to give vaccinations to clients during a South Street Ministries program in Akron, Ohio, last month. In the wake of the opioid crisis, the highly communicable hepatitis A virus is spreading in more than half the states, including Ohio. “It’s getting into the general public,” Rodriguez says. “It’s scary.”(Maddie McGarvey for KHN)

Hepatitis A thrives in unsanitary conditions and spreads as easily as a stomach virus: People ingest minuscule amounts of an infected person’s stool from food, drinks, drug equipment or objects as commonplace as doorknobs. Burrell, who used to live in a tent but now stays at a friend’s house, believes he contracted the virus cleaning up trash left by fellow drug users and not wearing gloves. More than two weeks after his hospital stay, he described still feeling weak and “worn out” visiting friends near the spot in Akron where he once pitched his tent.

The virus has stricken more people in Ohio than any other state but Kentucky, where it infected more than 4,800 people and killed at least 60. Kathleen Winter, a University of Kentucky epidemiologist, said more populous Ohio is on pace to surpass it as her state’s outbreak wanes.

Relentlessly, the virus continues its march across the nation. Pennsylvania declared an outbreak as recently as May. In early August, Florida and Philadelphia declared public health emergencies, which, among other things, signal to health care providers the need to vaccinate the vulnerable. Case counts now exceed 1,000 in six states.

And as in Akron, the virus reaches beyond homeless people and drug users. One in 5 Kentuckians sickened from August 2017 through mid-2019 fit neither group. Nearly 40% of Florida’s cases from 2018 and the first half of 2019 had no or unknown risk factors.

Simon Haeder, an assistant professor of public policy at Pennsylvania State University, said the outbreaks show how the addiction crisis and the diseases it fuels endanger everyone, while also revealing cracks in the nation’s patchwork, poorly funded public health system. A recent report by Trust for America’s Health found only 2.5% of U.S. health spending in 2017 went to public health.

“We have growing homeless and drug-using populations. We have a decreasing investment in public health. It doesn’t make me optimistic looking into the future,” Haeder said. “Once you reach a critical mass, eventually everyone is fair game.”

The Power Of A Vaccine

Hepatitis A, which infects liver cells and causes inflammation, can be mild or severe and in rare cases leads to liver failure and death, especially in older people and those with other liver diseases. There’s no cure; doctors advise rest, nutrition and fluids as it runs its course.

Cases dropped dramatically in the United States after a vaccine came out in 1995. The shots are recommended for babies, and federal figures from 2016 show 61% of children between 19 and 35 months old had gotten both of two doses. Only 9.5% of adults 19 and older had gotten the shots.

Summit County Public Health nurse Rachel Flossie gives a hepatitis A vaccination to Robert Wolf, 24, during a South Street Ministries program in Akron, Ohio.(Maddie McGarvey for KHN)

With so many unprotected adults, the disease roared back in 2016. Public health workers fought it by vaccinating those at greatest risk. In California’s San Diego County, they also opened hand-washing stations and distributed hygiene kits containing hand sanitizer, cleansing wipes, bottled water and other items. They even washed down streets with a bleach solution.

The next year, outbreaks appeared in five more states, including Kentucky, where it would ultimately metastasize into the nation’s largest.

The virus crept into neighboring Ohio in 2018, gradually infecting people in all but seven of 88 counties. By early this month, 111 cases had been reported in Summit County, among the state’s highest tallies.

Rodriguez and her colleagues in the northeastern Ohio county have mounted an all-out assault. They have administered more than 550 vaccinations, targeting people at the county jail, syringe services programs, drug treatment centers, post-incarceration support groups and homeless communities. When they identify cases, they work to find and vaccinate their families, friends and close contacts. Sage Lewis, an advocate for the homeless who owns land where a tent city once stood, said “the health department is saving lives.”

On a recent afternoon, Rodriguez and fellow health department nurse Rachel Flossie vaccinated 26 participants of a post-incarceration reentry program run by South Street Ministries. Participants lined up quickly to get their shots, some wincing at the prick of the needle.

Jessica Gilbert, 33, got her second dose of vaccine. She’d had her first in late May, providing most of her immunity. But she wanted to be extra cautious because she believes she may have been exposed by another woman in jail in a nearby county.

“I want full protection,” she said. “I don’t want to be sick.”

But health officials don’t reach everyone at risk. Some drug users are so focused on their next fix they don’t worry about protecting themselves from the virus. Many dealing with unstable housing or addiction are hard to find.

Jessica Gilbert, 33, got her second dose of hepatitis A vaccine during a South Street Ministries program in Akron, Ohio, on July 23. She’d had her first in late May, providing most of her immunity. But she wanted to be extra cautious because she believes she may have been exposed by another woman in jail in a nearby county.(Maddie McGarvey for KHN)

Burrell said he never heard of hep A before he got it. Although he knew not to share drug equipment when he cooked crystal meth, he said, he didn’t think about the dangers of touching dirty needles or other trash. Burrell now warns others to be careful and spreads the word about vaccination.

Public health nurse Yvonne Demyan does the same when she brings vaccines to a syringe services program in a strip mall health department office.

After vaccinating two other clients on a recent afternoon, Demyan stepped into the waiting area and asked a client: “Your turn?”

Before he could reply, she answered for him: “Yes. Would you rather be sick for a month? Because that’s exactly what’s gonna happen if you get hepatitis A.”

Wave Of Illness Rolls On

News coverage in some places highlights infected restaurant workers, but the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said transmission to restaurant patrons has been “extremely rare” during these outbreaks because of sanitation practices such as washing hands and wearing gloves.

Controlling the virus has proven especially challenging in rural areas, where there are fewer services such as homeless shelters and homelessness can mean couch-surfing with friends. Many small towns have small health departments, with just a couple of nurses and declining budgets. A 2018 survey by the National Association of County and City Health Officials found 23% of local health departments serving populations under 50,000 — and 19% of all local health departments — expect budget cuts in the next fiscal year.

Against this backdrop, the CDC has injected federal resources. The agency spent roughly $9.1 million in fiscal 2018 to help curb outbreaks, which includes money for 150,000 federally funded vaccines.

Summit County Public Health nurse Rachel Flossie gives a hepatitis A vaccination to Vicki Rhea.(Maddie McGarvey for KHN)

Dr. Monique Foster, a medical officer in CDC’s Division of Viral Hepatitis, said vaccinating those at highest risk remains the best strategy. “Outbreaks will stop when we have effectively vaccinated the vulnerable people,” she said.

Although the federal government isn’t recommending universal vaccination, several experts said the more people vaccinated, the better.

“The risk is there. The disease is circulating,” said the University of Kentucky’s Winter. “It’s good for the general public to be vaccinated.”

With the virus continuing its advance, Penn State’s Haeder said, “it won’t be long before we have it everywhere.”

FAQ On Hepatitis A

What is hepatitis A? It’s a highly contagious liver infection caused by the hepatitis A virus. It can range from a mild ailment lasting a few days to a severe illness lasting several months. Symptoms include fever, fatigue, loss of appetite, nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, dark urine, diarrhea, clay-colored stools, joint pain and jaundice, or yellowing of the skin and eyes. Symptoms usually last less than two months, although they can last as long as six months in some people.

How does it spread? The virus usually spreads when someone unknowingly ingests it from objects, food or drinks contaminated by minuscule amounts of stool from an infected person. It can also spread during close personal contact with an infected person, such as through sex or when caring for someone who is ill.

Who’s at risk? Anyone can get hepatitis A, but people at higher risk include those with direct contact with someone who has it; people who use drugs (injected or not); people who are homeless or have unstable housing; men who have sex with men; and travelers to countries where the virus is common.

Who should be vaccinated? The CDC’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices recommends vaccinating at-risk groups as well as those more likely to suffer complications from hepatitis A, 1-year-olds and “any person wishing to obtain immunity.” The committee recently voted to extend its recommendations to children ages 2-18 who missed the vaccine as babies.

How is the infection treated? There’s no medication or cure; the virus must run its course. Doctors typically treat symptoms and recommend rest, adequate nutrition and fluids. Some people need to be hospitalized. In rare cases, hepatitis A can be fatal, especially when it strikes older people or those with existing liver disease.

How is hepatitis A different from other types of hepatitis? Hepatitis A, B and C are caused by different viruses. Hepatitis B is primarily spread when blood, semen or certain other body fluids from an infected person enters someone else’s body. Hepatitis C is spread via blood. Hepatitis B or C can range from mild illnesses, lasting a few weeks, to serious, chronic conditions. There are vaccines for hepatitis A and B, but not hepatitis C.

Sources: U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices

Think Like a Doctor: The Tired Gardener Solved!

On Thursday, we challenged Well readers to solve the case of a previously healthy 67-year-old gardener who abandoned his garden one summer, alarming his wife and adult children. For weeks this vibrant and energetic man had been the last one out of bed — something his family had never seen before. And his days were interrupted each afternoon with a fever that left him shaking and pale. More than 300 readers suggested diagnoses for this classic presentation of an unusual disease, and a couple dozen of you nailed it.

The correct diagnosis is…

Babesiosis

The first person to identify this unusual infection was Dr. Paige Szymanowski, a resident in her second year of training in internal medicine at the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston. She said she recognized the pattern of a fever with a low blood count, low platelet count and evidence of liver injury. Dr. Szymanowski hasn’t made up her mind what kind of doctor she’s going to be, but she is thinking of subspecializing in infectious diseases. I think she shows real promise in this area. Well done!

The Diagnosis

Babesiosis is caused by the parasite Babesia microti, a protozoa. It is usually transmitted by Ixodes scapularis, better known as the deer tick, the same small arthropod that transmits Lyme disease. Sometimes the two diseases occur together, passed on in the same bite. The disease can also be spread through blood transfusions from an infected donor.

Babesiosis is rare and occurs primarily in the Northeast and Upper Midwest — Minnesota and Wisconsin — regions of the United States. In healthy people it often causes no symptoms. However, those who are over 65 or who have some type of immune suppression – because of a chronic disease or medication – or those who don’t have a spleen are more likely to develop symptoms and can become quite ill or even die from this infection.

Easy to Miss

Babesiosis is difficult to diagnose, and the diagnosis is often overlooked, even in areas where infection is most common. Patients with babesiosis have few, if any, localizing signs to suggest the disease. Fever — which can be constant or, as was the case with this patient, intermittent — is common. So are shaking, chills, fatigue, loss of appetite, abdominal pain and headache. These symptoms, however, are seen in many infections. And indeed, our patient had all of these symptoms, but it took many weeks for him to get a diagnosis.

The diagnosis is confirmed when the ring form of the protozoa is seen on a blood smear, or when the Babesia DNA is detected in the blood. Doxycycline, which is used to treat other tick-borne diseases, is ineffective against this organism. An antimalarial medication (atovaquone) plus an antibiotic (azithromycin) are first-line treatments against this infection. Improvement is usually seen within 48 hours of starting the drugs.

Although the infection will often resolve without treatment, all who are diagnosed with the disease should be treated since, in rare cases, the bug will persist and become symptomatic if a patient later develops some immune system problem or has his spleen removed.

How the Diagnosis Was Made

Dr. Neil Gupta was leading the daytime on-call team at Saint Raphael’s hospital in New Haven, Conn., where the patient’s daughter had taken him. Dr. Gupta heard about this patient when the night team handed off the patients they had admitted on their shift and met him that morning. Seeing how well the patient looked, and hearing that he’d been given the usually benign diagnosis of hepatitis A, he turned his attention to patients who seemed sicker and more in need of thought and care. Until the patient spiked his usual afternoon fever.

One of the ways the doctor’s mind works is to put together pictures of what a disease looks like in a patient. We put these so-called illness scripts together based on our knowledge of the disease plus the patients we have seen who have had it.

When Dr. Gupta heard that the patient had spiked a temperature, he went back to see how he was doing. The patient was pleasant but didn’t say much. Perhaps there was a language barrier — he spoke with a thick Italian accent. Or perhaps he was one of those patients who just don’t focus on what ails them.

Hearing From the Patient’s Family

The patient’s wife and daughter, however, had been much more attuned to the changes in his health and behavior, and what they reported didn’t really sound like hepatitis. Was this the right diagnosis, Dr. Gupta wondered?

He sat down with the family in the nursing lounge and let them tell the whole story as they recalled it. The man had actually been sick for several weeks. He’d had a fever every day. And he was tired. Normally he never sat down, was never idle. These days it seemed he never left the house anymore. Never went into the garden. He just sat on the sofa. For hours.

Sometimes he had pain in his upper abdomen, but never any nausea; he had never vomited. But he did have a cough. This was not the man they knew, the women told him.

Reviewing the Symptoms

Dr. Gupta returned to the patient and examined him, this time quite carefully, looking for the signs common in hep A. The man’s skin was dark but not yellow; and his eyes, while appearing tired, showed no hint of yellow either. His liver was not enlarged or tender. He didn’t look to Dr. Gupta like a patient who had hepatitis A.

The patient did have tests that were positive for hepatitis A, however. Could these tests be wrong? Dr. Gupta suspected that was the case. O.K., if not hepatitis A, what did he have?

The young internist made a list of the key components of the case: He had recurring fevers every afternoon. He had a cough and some upper abdominal pain. Not very specific — except for the repeating fevers.

The labs were a little more helpful. His liver showed signs of very mild injury — again, not consistent with hepatitis A, which usually causes significant liver insult.

However, he did have a mild anemia that had gotten worse over the past three days. He’d had his blood count drawn two days earlier, when he went to the emergency room at Yale–New Haven Hospital. That showed a very mild anemia – slightly fewer red blood cells than normal. The evening before, the patient’s red blood cell count had dropped further. And today, even further. So his red blood cells were being destroyed somehow. To Dr. Gupta, that seemed to be a second important clue. In addition, his platelets were quite low.

Many Possiblities

So, the patient had cyclic fevers, a worsening anemia and a mild liver injury. That suggested a very different set of diseases.

The patient was a gardener and had been treated for Lyme disease. Could he have a different tick-borne illness?

Certainly a number of illnesses could present this way. The cyclic fevers were suggestive of malaria — rare in this country, but still worth thinking about.

Could this be mononucleosis? Or even H.I.V.? Those diseases can affect red blood cells and the liver. And they can last weeks or months. If those tests were negative, he would need to start looking for autoimmune diseases or cancers.

Finally, he would need to review the blood smear with the pathologist. Several of these diseases can provide clues when you look at the blood itself.

An Answer in the Blood

A call came to Dr. Gupta late the next day. The pathologist had tested the patient’s blood for the presence of the Babesia gene, and found it. The patient had babesiosis.

Dr. Gupta went down to look at the blood smear with the pathologist. There, in the middle of a sea of normal looking red blood cells, was a tiny pear-shaped object. It was one of the protozoa.

Dr. Gupta was excited. He pulled up a picture of the tick that spreads the disease and the tiny bug that causes it to show to the family. This was what was making the patient so very sick.

How the Patient Fared

The patient was started on the two medications to treat babesiosis the same day. Twenty-four hours later he spent his first day completely fever-free —the first in several weeks.

After a couple more days, the patient was up and walking around, asking to go home. He went home the following day, with instructions to take his two medications twice a day for a total of 10 days.

That was last summer. This summer, the patient is back in his garden. He is a little more careful to avoid getting tick bites. He wears his long pants tucked into his socks and his wife looks him over every night — just to be sure.

Think Like a Doctor: The Tired Gardener

The Challenge: Can you figure out what is wrong with a lively 67-year-old gardener who develops a daily fever and shaking chills along with chest pain and a dry cough?

Every month, the Diagnosis column of The New York Times Magazine asks Well readers to solve a real-life diagnostic mystery. Below you will find the details of a case involving a retired maker of surgical supplies who starts having daily fevers along with chills, chest pain and a dry cough.

I’ll give you the same information the doctor was given before he made this diagnosis. Will you be able to figure out what’s wrong?

As usual, the first reader to submit the correct diagnosis gets a signed copy of my book, “Every Patient Tells a Story,” and the pleasure of puzzling out a tough but fascinating case.

The Patient’s Story

“NoNo says he doesn’t feel good,” the 9-year-old girl said of her grandfather, handing her mother the thermometer. The woman dried her hands on her apron and took the device. She squinted at the little electronic numbers. Just under 102 degrees.

Her father had been sick for weeks. Feverish, weak, not eating. It was late summer and the tomatoes and eggplants in the garden were ripe, but he hadn’t even walked through his garden for days, so she knew he wasn’t feeling well. But this was the first time he’d admitted that something more serious might be going on.

It was about time. She’d taken her 67-year-old father to several doctors over the past two months. They’d looked him over and given him antibiotics, but it hadn’t helped.

“Tell NoNo that if he’s feeling sick he’s got to go to the hospital,” she told the little girl. She darted back to her grandfather’s room then quickly returned. “He says he’s ready to go.”

The woman wasn’t sure exactly when her father had started to get sick, but six or seven weeks earlier she had noticed that he was no longer the first one out of bed. Instead of being up and out before 7 a.m., he wouldn’t get up until late morning. And he started to have strange shaking chills each afternoon and evening, followed by a fever — regular as clockwork.

He looked sweaty and pale. She asked him what was wrong, but he said he was fine. Or sometimes he’d say he felt a little tired. After an hour or two the fever would pass and he’d just look tired, but the next day, or sometimes the day after, the fever would be back.

The First Diagnosis

The woman first took her father to his regular doctor. Knowing how much he loved to work in his garden, the doctor figured he probably had Lyme disease. It was summertime, and Lyme was common in the area of Connecticut where they lived. Plus, he practically took root in the half-acre garden back behind the house where he lived with his wife and their children and grandchildren.

This was the first summer the woman could remember where her father wasn’t out in his garden every single day. This year it seemed that whole weeks would go by when he did nothing but look out the window at his beautiful handiwork.

Her father took antibiotics for the presumed Lyme. It didn’t help.

A Second Diagnosis

When the patient went for a follow-up visit, he told his doctor that his stomach was bothering him a bit. So he was referred to a gastroenterologist. That doctor diagnosed Helicobacter pylori – a bacterium tough enough to survive the acid environment of the stomach that can cause pain and ulcers.

He took two weeks of treatment for that — three medications to kill the bug, and one to neutralize the acid they thrive in. That didn’t stop the daily fevers, either.

Recently the man’s wife noticed that he’d developed a dry cough. Was this a pneumonia? His doctor gave him yet another antibiotic. And he was still taking that pill when he agreed to go to the emergency room.

Pneumonia?

So three generations — wife, daughter and granddaughter — got in the car with the man they loved and drove to the hospital where the daughter worked.

The emergency room was quiet when they arrived, and after explaining that the patient had been having fevers for weeks, the patient and his entourage were taken into the back so he could be seen right away.

He did have a fever but otherwise looked pretty healthy. The doctors there seemed to focus on the cough and fever. They figured he had a pneumonia that wasn’t responding to the antibiotics he was taking. And when a chest X-ray failed to show any sign of pneumonia at all, the doctors sent him home.

You can see the note from that first visit to the Emergency Department here.

First ER Visit

If Not Pneumonia, Then What?

The next day, the man felt no better. His daughter was distressed. Her father was sick. Antibiotics weren’t working. And he was getting worse.

She called his primary care doctor again. He was also worried, he told her. But he didn’t know what to suggest.

What if she tried a different emergency room?, she suggested. They had gone to Yale-New Haven Hospital initially because that’s where she worked, but what if they went to the smaller branch of the hospital, St. Raphael’s Hospital, less than a mile away. They had different doctors there, and the hospital had a different feel — local and friendly rather than big and academic. Maybe they would find a doctor there who could help them figure out what was going wrong. It was unorthodox, the doctor told her, to shop around emergency rooms. And it wasn’t clear what another E.R. visit might do. But he was also worried about the patient, and it was certainly worth a try.

Another E.R. Visit

So early that evening they all got back into the car and drove to the St. Raphael campus. The E.R. was bustling when the family came in. Once again he had a fever – 101.6 degrees. His family explained how sick he’d been, how tired. And yet when the doctor examined him, he seemed well enough. He couldn’t find anything abnormal beyond the fever.

The labs told a slightly different story. His red blood cell count was low. So were his platelets – a type of blood cell that helps blood to clot. What was particularly strange was that these two findings had been checked the day before at the other E.R. and had been fine. And there was some evidence that he had some liver damage.

And when tested for viral hepatitis — a common causes of abnormal liver tests — he tested positive for hepatitis A and possibly hepatitis B as well.

He was admitted to St. Raphael’s Hospital because of his worsening anemia and viral hepatitis.

You can see the note from this second emergency room visit, and the admission note from the night team here.

The Second ER Note

Admission Note

Fitting the Pattern

The next morning, Dr. Neil Gupta saw the patient. Hearing the patient’s story, and the diagnosis of hepatitis A infection, was a little puzzling. Patients with hepatitis usually have mild flu-like symptoms, with a loss of appetite, nausea and vomiting, plus fatigue, low-grade fever and a generalized sense of being unwell. Certainly this patient didn’t feel well, but he had no nausea, no vomiting. And his fever came in spikes. The pattern didn’t really match.

Dr. Gupta sat down with the patient’s family and reviewed all the symptoms and the timeline. Then he reviewed all the labs. He sent off a bunch of tests.

You can see Dr. Gupta’s note here.

The Doctor’s Note

Solving the Mystery

Dr. Gupta was finally able to figure out what was wrong with this man. Can you?

The first person to figure out what is really going on with this 67-year-old gardener gets a copy of my book and that lovely sense of satisfaction that comes from making a tough diagnosis.

Rules and Regulations: Post your questions and diagnosis in the comments section below. The winner will be contacted. Reader comments may also appear in a coming issue of The New York Times Magazine.