COLUMBUS The Ohio Department of Health has declared a statewide community outbreak of hepatitis A after observing an increase in cases linked to certain risk factors.

Ohio is reporting 79 hepatitis A cases associated with the outbreak so far this year, almost double the number of cases reported during all of last year.

Hepatitis A outbreaks are occurring in several states across the U.S., including neighboring states of Indiana (138 cases), Kentucky (761 cases), Michigan (843 cases) and West Virginia (248 cases). A number of Ohios hepatitis A cases have been linked to those outbreaks.

Hepatitis A is a vaccine-preventable liver disease that usually spreads when a person ingests fecal matter even in microscopic amounts from contact with objects, food, or drinks contaminated by the stool of an infected person.

Hepatitis A also can be spread from close personal contact with an infected person, such as through sex.

Good hand-washing and vaccination are the best ways to prevent hepatitis A in at-risk individuals, said Sietske de Fijter, state epidemiologist and chief of the ODH Bureau of Infectious Diseases. If you or someone you know has one or more risk factors for hepatitis A, call your local health department to see about getting vaccinated.

ODH has provided more than 5,000 doses of hepatitis A vaccine to local health departments. Declaring a hepatitis A outbreak ensures ODH access to additional hepatitis A vaccine through the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

People at increased risk for hepatitis A include those who have direct contact with individuals infected with the virus; travelers to countries where the virus is prevalent; men who have sex with men; people who use street drugs, whether they are injected or not; people with blood clotting factor disorders; people with chronic liver disease; and household members and other close contacts of adopted children newly arrived from countries where hepatitis A is common.

Ohios hepatitis A outbreak cases appear to be primarily among people who use illegal drugs, those who have been incarcerated, people who have had contact with known cases, those also infected with hepatitis C, men who have sex with men, and people experiencing homelessness.

Symptoms of hepatitis A include fatigue, low appetite, stomach pain, nausea, clay-colored stools and jaundice.

People with hepatitis A can experience mild illness lasting a few weeks to a severe illness lasting several months.