Hepatitis vaccinations available to at-risk groups

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Staff Writer

As Washington’s Spokane County maneuvers to treat an uptick in Hepatitis A among its homeless population, health-care providers are giving vaccinations to at-risk populations in North Idaho at no charge.

Heritage Health and the Panhandle Health District are joining forces to vaccinate homeless, transient and uninsured patients in the area. The Heritage clinic, at 109 E. Harrison in Coeur d’Alene, is administering the vaccinations Panhandle Health is providing, all while the Heritage mobile program provides health care needs, such as illness management and mental health screenings, among other free services.

“This is the first time we’re offering this through the clinic,” said Megan Henry, a certified medical assistant and four-year veteran at Heritage Health. “Our homeless population here and the uninsured can really benefit from this.”

The Washington State Department of Health declared an outbreak of Hepatitis A. The state is tracking 13 confirmed July cases of the potentially fatal virus, nine of which have been diagnosed in neighboring Spokane County. The nine cases represent a 200 percent increase from June.

Hepatitis A typically presents with flu-like symptoms, but the liver virus is more serious and could lead to liver failure and death. Henry said symptoms included nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, a yellowing of the eyes and skin, pale stool, fatigue, a lack of appetite and stomach pain.

Panhandle Health Public Information Officer Katherine Hoyer said no known cases of Hepatitis A had been diagnosed in Kootenai County. She said the disease spreads through unwashed hands, sexual contact with infected partners, ingesting contaminated food or water or recreational drug use. The homeless, ill-housed and transient are at a higher risk to contract the disease, as are IV drug users, those who come in contact with infected people and men who have sex with other men.

Panhandle Health Epidemiologist David Hylsky said the vaccine wasn’t administered with a normal booster regiment to the adult population at large because it wasn’t available until 2005. He advises people to consult their primary care doctors to determine whether they need the vaccine, something at-risk populations cannot always access.

“We received some grant money from the state of Idaho to provide these free vaccines to these high-risk groups,” Hylsky said. “Heritage Health is a great partner with great access through their street clinic and outreach programs.”

While the homeless count in Kootenai County varies, Heritage Health treated 401 cases from September 2018 to December 2018. It sees more than 300 visits per month to its Harrison Avenue office for other services, according to Heritage outreach director TJ Byrne.

“What I want people to know more than anything,” Byrne said, “is that our homeless population is changing dramatically. The idea of homeless is the guy standing by the freeway flying a sign. But what we’re seeing more and more are families. The face of homelessness is changing. This isn’t just a drug addict who’s fighting with his family and gets kicked off the couch. It’s kids. It’s working families who’ve been out-priced out of their homes. The face of homelessness is changing not just in our community, but as a nationwide crisis because of an affordable housing shortage.

“This is a problem that impacts everybody,” he added. “We’re not immune to it here just because we’re an affluent community.”

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