Hepatitis A is a liver infection caused by the hepatitis A virus. The virus is contagious and can be found in the stool of an infected person. This is a concern for travelers because one way it can be spread is by consuming contaminated food or drinks. For example, if a cook with hepatitis A does not wash their hands properly after going to the bathroom, the virus can be spread to the meal being prepared or to an object, like a cup or fork. Contamination however, can happen anywhere along the way, from the fields where vegetables are irrigated with polluted water to a restaurant that has poor sanitation.
If you do become infected with the virus, it can cause a range of flu-like symptoms like fever, fatigue, or stomach pain. Hepatitis A can also cause jaundice, a yellowing of the skin and eyes. School-aged children and adults usually have symptoms, while very young children may not have any. In most cases, the virus goes away within 2-5 weeks, and the person makes a full recovery. But for some, the symptoms keep coming back and can last up to 9 months. In rare cases, liver failure and death can result.
Traveling to certain regions does put you at a higher risk. The highest rates of hepatitis A are in Africa and India. High rates of the disease also exist in Mexico, Central and South America, Asia, the Middle East, and the Caribbean. Keep in mind that developed countries are not immune to outbreaks of hepatitis A.
How you travel, where you stay, and how long you stay also affect your level of risk. Do you have an adventurous trip planned, like following a guide through an African National Park to see the wildebeest migration? Or will you be pampered in a thatched-roof villa with white sand beaches right outside the door? While you may feel more secure about the safety of your meals at a 5-star hotel, there have been cases of hepatitis A at top tourist destinations.
Take for example this real-life scenario: A waitress at a hotel and resort in New Zealand, a country that has a low incidence of hepatitis A, was diagnosed with the virus. The public health authority estimated that she could have exposed thousands of guests to the virus during the incubation period, a 3-5 week period before any symptoms appear. This is when the virus is the most contagious. The concern was that many of the guests had since returned home, unaware of their exposure. If they did have the virus and were not treated in time, it could have a ripple effect, spreading to family members, coworkers, and people in the community.
The good news is that there is a vaccine for hepatitis A. This highly effective vaccine contains an inactivated form of the virus, which means it will not make you sick. You can get the vaccine as soon as you know your plans, but keep in mind a second dose is needed six months later. This will give you long term protection. With appropriate time, the vaccine will stimulate your own immune system to protect you against hepatitis A.
In healthy adults, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends vaccination for the following:
Certain people who are traveling with less than two weeks notice may need to take extra precautions. These include travelers age 40 years and older, those with poor immune systems, or those with chronic conditions. These people should receive the hepatitis A vaccination and hepatitis A immune globulin (IG). IG shots contain antibodies that offer short term protection.
If you cannot get the hepatitis A vaccine for any reason before you depart, consider getting a hepatitis A immune globulin shot. This can provide some protection for a few months.
The CDC does not recommend vaccination for US travelers going to Canada, Western Europe, Australia, New Zealand, or Japan.
In addition to travelers, the vaccine is recommended for all children aged 12 months and older, poeple with high risk occupations, people who engage in high risk lifestyle behaviors, and those with certain medical conditions, such as liver disease and blood-clotting disorders. Also, any person who desired protection from hepatitis A can be vaccinated.
There are limitations with the vaccine, though. It cannot be given to children under 12 months or to people who have had an allergic reaction to the vaccine or its components. Vaccination is not necessary for those who have had hepatitis A. Once you have had hepatitis A, you have immunity for life.
Beyond the vaccines and IG, there are other measures that you can take to protect yourself from hepatitis A and other foodborne disease:
As soon as you begin planning the trip talk to your doctor about your risk for hepatitis A. Provide details about the area, accommodations, types of activities, and your health. Rather than going to your regular doctor, you may want to make an appointment with a specialist in travel medicine. On the International Society of Travel Medicine’s website, you can search for a doctor in your state.
Visit the US Embassy’s website to get contact information for the consulates and to register your trip with the US Department of State. Registration is voluntary; the information is used in case of an emergency. On the website, you can also read about current outbreaks, medical facilities, and health insurance. Keep in mind that many insurance companies do not pay for treatment abroad or for emergency care, like being flown by helicopter to a hospital. Also, the country you are visiting may not accept your insurance. So, you may want buy travel medical insurance to cover these expenses.
Another useful resource is the CDC’s Traveler’s Health website. The site provides information on how to prepare for your trip, including what medications and vaccinations are needed.
Among travelers, hepatitis A is one of the most common infections that can be prevented with a vaccine. So, whether you are planning on visiting museums in Beijing or white water rafting in the Mekong River, take action now to protect yourself and the people around you.
International Society of Travel Medicine
US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Canadian Liver Foundation
Public Health Agency of Canada
ALF policy statement on hepatitis A. American Liver Foundation website. Available at: http://www.liverfoundation.org/about/advocacy/hepapolicy. Updated October 4, 2011. Accessed February 17, 2015.
Country specific information—medical insurance. United States Department of State website. Available at: http://travel.state.gov/content/passports/english/go/health/providers.html. Accessed February 17, 2015.
Fear of hepatitis A at Copthorne Hotel and Resort in Queenstown. Medindia website. Available at: http://www.medindia.net/news/Fear-of-Hepatitis-A-at-Copthorne-Hotel-and-Resort-Queenstown-36807-1.htm. Accessed February 17, 2015.
Hepatitis A virus (HAV). EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: http://www.ebscohost.com/dynamed. Updated February 11, 2015. Accessed February 17, 2015.
Hepatitis A. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Travelers Health website. Available at: http://wwwnc.cdc.gov/travel/yellowbook/2014/chapter-3-infectious-diseases-related-to-travel/hepatitis-a. Updated August 1, 2013. Accessed February 17, 2015.
Hepatitis A FAQs for health professionals. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. Available at: http://www.cdc.gov/hepatitis/hav/havfaq.htm. Updated June 6, 2013. Accessed February 17, 2015.
Hepatitis A questions and answers. Immunization Action Coalition website. Available at: http://www.immunize.org/catg.d/p4204.pdf. Accessed February 17, 2015.
Hepatitis A virus vaccine inactivated. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: http://www.ebscohost.com/dynamed. Updated January 18, 2013. Accessed February 17, 2015.
Update: prevention of hepatitis A after exposure to hepatitis A virus and in international travelers. updated recommendations of the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP). MMWR. 2007;56:1080-1084.
Last reviewed February 2015 by Michael Woods, MD
Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.
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