Fears of an epidemic of a highly contagious disease prompted King County to expand the number of free hepatitis A vaccinations for homeless people.
The vaccines are part of an effort to prevent an outbreak similar to that seen in other West Coast cities, said Jeff Duchin, Seattle County and King County Public Health Officer. . In April, King County public health officials diagnosed hepatitis A in a homeless man, the first case of this type at the local level.
"This is not a new initiative, it's new funding," said Duchin about the $ 375,000 pledge announced Wednesday.
In 2017, an epidemic in San Diego that affected the homeless largely left 20 dead and 400 hospitalized. An audit revealed that the county's slow response by providing mass vaccinations allowed the epidemic to develop.
Several municipalities have been affected by hepatitis epidemics in recent months, including Phoenix and Boise.
In 2018, 14 cases of hepatitis A were reported in King County. Twelve cases have been reported this year, including the only person living on the street.
The program will target people experiencing homelessness as their population is considerable and presents an increased risk of the hepatitis A epidemic, said Mr Duchin.
Hepatitis A is spread through food or water contaminated by a person exposed to faeces containing the virus, said John Scott, expert on viral hepatitis at UW Medicine. Overcrowding and lack of access to sanitation make homeless people vulnerable.
"We have a large population living in conditions favorable to hepatitis A epidemics," Duchin said.
In March of this year, King County officials expressed concern over outbreaks of serious illness among homeless people.
In the last 18 months, King County has vaccinated 2,200 people against hepatitis A, but the goal is to reach a threshold that would prevent the virus from spreading among the homeless said Duchin.
Achieving this goal would require a vaccination rate of about 90%, Scott said. Complete protection against hepatitis A requires a second dose of the vaccine six months later, the duration of the planned program.
However, even a dose can be effective for 10 years and offer 85% to 90% protection, which could help mitigate the potential of an outbreak.
Since February, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have been recommending the vaccine to all homeless people. Although the vaccine is now the norm for most children, this practice has only been implemented relatively recently and most adults are still at risk.
The funding will allow the Public Health Agency to expand its services with dedicated funding for a coordinator, administrative support and four part-time vaccinators. All new positions have been filled and will start next week, if they have not already done so.
If the demand for vaccines exceeds what they're able to provide, the county will request additional funding from the state or county.