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St. Louis Inmates To Receive Hepatitis A Vaccines Amid National Outbreak

The majority of people housed at the Medium Security Institution in St. Louis do not have air conditioning. (July 19, 2017)
File photo | Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio
Health and corrections officials in St. Louis will give the hepatitis A vaccine to about 800 inmates at the city's jails, including the Medium Security Institution.

The St. Louis Department of Health and Division of Corrections are vaccinating 800 people at the city’s two jails to prevent a national hepatitis A outbreak from spreading among inmates.

Since 2016, more than 22,000 people have caught the highly contagious liver virus, which can cause nausea and jaundice and require long periods of hospitalization. Inmates are among the most at risk of contracting the disease, St. Louis Health Department Director Fred Echols said.

“This project at the correctional facilities is truly a preventative measure that we’re implementing to try and protect the population," Echols said. 

While 378 cases of hepatitis A have been reported in Missouri since September 2017, there has only been one case in St. Louis, and no cases reported inside the downtown City Justice Center or the Medium Security Institution, commonly called the Workhouse.

Former inmates and legal advocates have in the past accused the Workhouse of unsanitary and unhealthy conditions. The vaccination project is not in response to any problems at either facility, Echols said.

Hepatitis A is spread through ingesting contagious peoples’ fecal matter. People usually catch the virus when they’re living in unclean conditions, and it’s more commonly found in homeless or transient people, intravenous drug users, or people who live in crowded conditions. Inmates are also among those most at risk of the virus, Echols said.

“You have people in close proximity the likelihood one person becomes infected, the likelihood of transmission is greater than if they were out in the general public,” he said.

Vaccinating inmates also protects jail employees and visitors, he said.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention provided the vaccines to the city’s health department. Echols estimates that the 800 immunizations will be enough to cover all people eligible to receive them. Certain inmates, such as those who work with food, already have been immunized. There are about 1,000 housed at both the city’s jails.

The mass vaccination project is planned as a one-time event, but it’s possible the jails might need more immunizations in the future, Echols said. 

Unlike federal prisons, populations of city jails are in flux, with people moving in and out constantly, he said. More people needing the vaccine could flow into the jails.

City corrections and health officials will give inmates released after a single dose the second required dose of the two-step vaccine, he said. 

Follow Sarah on Twitter: @Petit_Smudge

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Sarah is the health reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.

Send questions and comments about this story to feedback@stlpublicradio.org.