Health care providers across the United States are waging a quiet yet tireless battle over a disease that is quickly approaching epidemic status -- hepatitis A.
Hepatitis A is a virus that impacts the liver. It is highly contagious and is usually transmitted by consuming contaminated food or water. However, hepatitis A can also be spread through anal sex, rimming, or fingering.
Many states, particularly in the Midwest and the Southeast, have seen a dramatic spike in hepatitis A rates. In 2015, there were only 1,390 reported cases of hepatitis A in the nation. However, since the current outbreaks were first identified in late 2016, more than 26,000 cases have been reported. High rates of hospitalization and at least 260 deaths have occurred nationwide as a result of these outbreaks.
What has changed is who is getting hepatitis A and why.
In the past, hepatitis A has most commonly been associated with food and water contamination. The virus has been a particular challenge for people experiencing homelessness and people who inject drugs. But hepatitis A is now growing rapidly in gay, bisexual, and transgender communities, transmitted during sex.
Fortunately, hepatitis A is preventable. One dose of hepatitis A vaccine has been shown to control outbreaks and provides up to 95% protection in healthy adults for 11 years.
LGBTQ people who are older, living with HIV, experiencing homelessness, and/or injecting drugs may be more vulnerable to a serious liver infection caused by hepatitis A. Most people typically recover from hepatitis A with medical supervision; however, because we know LGBTQ people experience mistreatment and denial of care in the health care system, getting routine preventive care like vaccines can be challenging, if not impossible.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, health departments, and community-based organizations in areas with active hepatitis A have been working tirelessly to create awareness and promote vaccines for the disease. At Grindr for Equality, Grindr's advocacy arm, we have supported their mission by working to generate awareness through outbreak alerts on the Grindr application in the most impacted areas, including Virginia, Illinois, and Seattle.
The message is clear: Anyone who is having sex should get vaccinated.
We as a community need to continue to support health departments and community organizations that are offering hepatitis A vaccines as well as other sexual health services, like HIV testing. We urge health care providers to take accurate and affirming sexual health histories for all clients, especially those who are LGBTQ. Stigma around anal sex, rimming, and anal health overall may discourage LGBTQ people from openly sharing an accurate sexual health history and thereby might prevent them from being obvious candidates for vaccination. LGBTQ people who use drugs or experience homelessness should also be informed about the vaccine regardless of how they have sex.
If you're LGBTQ and concerned about your community, the best thing you can do is get vaccinated for hepatitis A with your health care provider or local health department. Tell your partners and friends to get vaccinated. We deserve to take control of our sexual health. Together, we can stop these outbreaks and ensure our community stays healthy.