We went to a class on hepatitis A. Here’s what we learned.

As outbreaks of the virus become more frequent across Tampa Bay and the nation, people are looking for ways to protect themselves.
Dr. Luke Johnsen, medical director of Metro Inclusive Health, answers questions about hepatitis during a class Aug. 6 at the organization’s St. Petersburg office. [JAMES BORCHUCK   |   Times]
Dr. Luke Johnsen, medical director of Metro Inclusive Health, answers questions about hepatitis during a class Aug. 6 at the organization’s St. Petersburg office. [JAMES BORCHUCK | Times]
Published August 16

Tommy Vantrease had heard the hype about local hepatitis A infections on the news.

It started with reports of the virus at Hamburger Mary's in Ybor City, he recalled. But he wasn't sure if he'd been vaccinated for it before.

“I'm a veteran, so I see the doctor once a year at Bay Pines,” the 71-year-old St. Petersburg resident said, referring to the Veterans Affairs hospital near Seminole.

“I enlisted in the Vietnam era, so maybe? Now I don't know if I should get the shot now or wait until I see my doctor again.”

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Vantrease was one of several dozen men who gathered earlier this month to hear from Dr. Luke Johnsen, the medical director at Metro Inclusive Health, a nonprofit with locations across Tampa Bay that specialize in LGBTQ health care.

They gathered for Metro’s “Sage” men’s class, a social group for LGBTQ identifying men ages 50 and older. Johnsen spoke about the epidemic and the infection risks it poses.

Hepatitis A has been top of mind lately, with Florida declaring an emergency earlier this month over the rise in cases across the state. Nationally, Kaiser Health News reported this past week that more than 23,600 people had been sickened from outbreaks in 29 states since 2016, with 230 deaths reported. Experts expect to see outbreaks in every state, the health news website said.

RELATED STORY: Florida officials declare Hepatitis A emergency

Meanwhile, Tampa Bay continues to be a hotbed, with a large number of cases compared to other areas of the state.

Hepatitis A is spread person-to-person through feces contaminated with the virus. It can be spread by mouth, from eating or drinking contaminated food or water, or through sex. Symptoms include fever, dark urine, yellow-tinged skin or eyes, fatigue and gastric issues. It can also cause damage to the liver, especially among those who already have liver disease.

Johnsen began his class by explaining the differences between hepatitis A, B and C. All three infections affect the liver; there are only vaccines for hepatitis A and B. Both hepatitis B and C are blood-born infections, he said.

Then came questions from the audience:

Can you contract hepatitis A more than once?

No, Johnsen said.

Does it spread like HIV?

Johnsen said hepatits A is easier to transmit than HIV. Plus, the virus stays alive for longer. It can live for days or weeks on surfaces like bathroom countertops.

How else can you get it?

One way to transmit hepatitis A that people often forget about, Johnsen said, is by sharing razors or toothbrushes. It’s more common than most think, he said. But any situation where “micro abrasions” can occur, opening the skin to the virus, is how it spreads. Drug use and sex are usually the most common causes.

What if you're already a clean freak?

Proper hygiene is the easiest way to avoid getting hepatitis A, Johnsen said. Wash hands regularly, and don't touch surfaces you know can be dirty, like the door knob of a public rest room, he said. Instead, use a paper towel to cover the knob. Hand sanitizer helps kill germs, but people often don't apply it correctly, Johnsen said. They should wait for it to dry before touching anything, or it won’t be effective.

What kind of food should I avoid while dining out?

Anything uncooked, like seafood or even salads. Cooking foods will kill off any hepatitis A.

Can you get tested for hepatitis A risk?

Doctors can test to see if a patient has had the vaccine before, Johnsen said. And then they can recommend if someone should get vaccinated.

“I always practice the paper towel trick on the bathroom handle,” said Vantrease, the veteran in the audience. “But I didn't realize hepatitis A can be airborne. Maybe I should get tested sooner rather than later.”

The Florida Department of Health is administering hepatitis A shots across the Tampa Bay area. Visitors to floridahealth.gov can easily find the link to their county health office.

Pinellas and Pasco counties are teaming up to offer free hepatitis A vaccines to adults on Saturday from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. at St. Vincent de Paul Roman Catholic Church, 4843 Mile Stretch Dr., in Holiday. Free HIV and hepatitis C tests will also be available.

Also, Metro Inclusive Health is offering testing for hepatitis A, and can administer the vaccines. Patients can schedule an appointment at a Metro center with a primary care physician.

Contact Justine Griffin at jgriffin@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8467. Follow @SunBizGriffin.

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