Public Health England says that it has noted a small but unusual rise in hepatitis A across England. This is mostly among gay and bisexual men. Some of the rise has been associated with travel to Spain.
Hepatitis A is an infection of the liver. It is not as serious as hepatitis B or C. Nevertheless, it can be accompanied by illness that lasts for several weeks and it sometimes results in hospitalization.
Symptoms can include a flu-like illness, nausea, weight loss and jaundice (yellowing of the skin and whites of the eyes). Some people have no symptoms at all but can still pass on the virus.
It is mainly spread through contaminated food or from person to person through inadequate hand-washing. It’s also transmitted through sex – including oral and anal sex. People who have multiple sexual partners are at greater risk.
Food washed by an infected person who has not washed their hands after going to the toilet, or seafood and shellfish that has been taken from water containing sewage, are among the reasons some tourist locations are linked to outbreaks.
A vaccine is available to prevent infection, and those at risk can ask for more details from their GP or sexual health clinic.
‘We recommend gay and bisexual men wash their hands after sex’
Dr Michael Edelstein Consultant Epidemiologist in the Hepatitis and Blood Safety Department for Public Health England, said: ‘Public Health England is aware of an increase in hepatitis A cases, where we believe the infection has been spread through sex, most cases occurring in gay and bisexual men.
‘Hepatitis A can be prevented by practicing good personal hygiene, so we recommend gay and bisexual men wash their hands after sex and change condoms between any kind of sex to reduce their risk of getting hepatitis A.
‘Those who are concerned can seek advice from sexual health services about whether they would benefit from hepatitis A vaccination.’
A spokesperson for PHE said that the numbers of cases remained low but the organization was concerned by the unusual increase, which is why they were acting now to raise awareness.
Ian Howley, acting CEO of gay men’s health charity GMFA told GSN: ‘These statistics on hep A are not surprising: we are seeing an increase in nearly all STIs among gay and bisexual men in the UK.
‘It’s important that we don’t forget or downplay other STIs in our battle to stop HIV. The best way to prevent hepatitis A is by getting vaccinated. The vaccine is available at most GUM clinics, travel clinics or you can ask your GP.
‘The vaccine is a course of two injections taken six months apart. But also while you are there ask your clinic to for the hep B vaccine. Both hep A and hep B are preventable and all gay and bisexual men should be vaccinated against both.’