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Hepatitis A cases surging in Seoul, surrounding areas

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By Kang Seung-woo

The health authority has raised concerns about hepatitis A infections that have increased rapidly in Seoul and its surrounding areas.

Officials are alarmed because nearly three-quarters of the patients are in their 30s and 40s, who are usually believed to be have more resistance to the disease.

Hepatitis A is a viral liver disease that is transmitted through ingestion of contaminated food or water, or through direct contact with an infected person. Symptoms include fatigue, sudden nausea and vomiting, and abdominal pain or discomfort.

According to the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (KCDC), 3,597 cases had been reported as of Friday, up 2.4 times from the same period last year. In addition, the number has already surpassed the total outbreaks of last year, at 2,346.

In January and February, there were 429 and 589 cases, respectively, but the number sharply increased the following months with 1,239 in March and 1,340 in April.

Considering the current development, the number of hepatitis A cases for this year is on pace to top 2017's 4,679, which was the highest in recent years.

By region, Gyeonggi Province has reported 1,060 cases so far, followed by 615 in Daejeon and 570 in Seoul. They accounted for 62.4 percent of all cases nationwide. North Chungcheong Province and Incheon had 236 and 218 cases.

By age, the number of patients in their 30s stood at 1,346 and that of people in their 40s was 1,265, together accounting for 72.6 percent of the total. In addition, 485 patients belonged to the 20 to 29 age group, accounting for 13.5 percent.

The KCDC attributed the larger number of cases from the relatively younger age groups to low antibody-positive rates.

According to the Korea National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey in 2015, the antibody-positive rates against hepatitis A among people in their 20s and 30s were 12.6 percent and 31.8 percent, respectively.

"In the past, many people were exposed to hepatitis A due to poor sanitation and hygiene, and suffered and recovered from it, naturally developing the antibodies. But a number of people born in the 1970s do not have the antibody because the social hygienic and sanitary conditions have improved," a KCDC official said.

In the wake of snowballing cases, the health authority has launched an epidemiological investigation to find what has caused the increase as the disease has a long incubation period of up to 50 days. This means it is difficult to ascertain how and when the patients were infected.

The KCDC has advised people to get vaccinated.

"The best way to prevent hepatitis A is vaccination. The vaccine must be given in two shots six months apart," the official said.

Kang Seung-woo


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