Three people have died in Shasta County and hundreds more have become ill in a hepatitis epidemic that a top health official said had reached "astronomical proportions."
Authorities said the number of confirmed cases of hepatitis A is at the highest level in at least 44 years.
Dr. Andrew Deckert, the county's chief public health officer, said the deaths of two Redding residents and another from Shasta Lake this year may be the first in the county ever attributed to hepatitis A.
Hepatitis A is a viral liver malady generally spread by contact with contaminated food or water that can cause fever, nausea and jaundice.
Because it is not a chronic disease, unlike some cases of hepatitis B and C, hepatitis A is usually not fatal. Most cases of hepatitis A last less than two months, whereas about 10% of hepatitis B cases and 75% of hepatitis C cases become chronic, persisting indefinitely. Unlike the other two, hepatitis A rarely causes cirrhosis of the liver.
The disease is often transmitted through contact with human feces in the handling of food. Other types of hepatitis can be spread by blood and body fluids.
Deckert said 556 cases of hepatitis A have been confirmed this year in the county about 240 miles northeast of San Francisco, a more than fivefold increase over 1994, when 111 cases were reported. In 1993, seven cases were reported.
Deckert told county supervisors that the incidence of hepatitis A has reached "astronomical proportions."
"Because it is passed person to person, it is very difficult to isolate a source," said Elizabeth Murane, director of public health nursing for the Shasta County Health Department. The sources of 56% of the cases were unknown, she said.
Murane said the cases of hepatitis B and C, transmitted by blood and body fluid contamination, were at normal or near-normal levels.
One of the victims, a 25-year-old Redding man, had been suffering from a life-threatening blood infection when he contracted hepatitis and died, Murane said.
A 52-year-old Shasta Lake man required a liver transplant after getting hepatitis, then died in a San Francisco hospital from complications involving the transplant.
The third victim, a 64-year-old Redding man, died from liver failure attributed to acute hepatitis A.
In an average year, there are about 23,000 cases of hepatitis A in the United States and 80 deaths.