16 cases of hepatitis A in Martin County, six cases in Palm Beach County

Potentially deadly hepatitis A has now reached outbreak levels in two local counties — Palm Beach and Martin.

State Health Department representatives in both counties verified the existence of new cases on Tuesday.

In Martin County, the health agency announced its latest confirmed case of the liver disease, bringing the total to 16, at least since the first of the year — 11 since April 1.

“When you raise awareness about an issue, generally you start to have people pay attention, and they’ll come forward for testing and evaluation,” said Renay Rouse, Health Department spokeswoman in Martin County. “It’s not uncommon to see a rise in cases when you’re shedding light on it.”

Health experts have yet to determine the source of the outbreak. They’re gathering interviews, lifestyle information and food histories from those with the virus.

“The epidemiologists interview, and they learn about the confirmed cases,” Rouse said. “They learn about their lifestyles. They learn about maybe where they ate. And they’re looking to pinpoint a cause. So it’s ongoing right now.”

The Health Department says hepatitis A is a contagious liver disease usually spread person to person through objects, food or drink that are contaminated by small amounts of fecal matter from a person with hepatitis A.

Martin County is now considered a high-risk area. The designation is given after an area reaches five confirmed cases. There are 1,200 confirmed cases of hepatitis A statewide.

In Palm Beach County, agency spokesman Alexander Shaw said hepatitis A is also classified as an outbreak.

Shaw said his county has had six confirmed cases of hepatitis A since the first of the year. Shaw said the outbreak or high risk threshold is reached when an area or high-risk group reaches five cases within the past 50 days.