In California, housing crunch exacts toll as hepatitis deaths grow

Susan Heavey

About Susan Heavey

Susan Heavey, (@susanheavey) a Washington, D.C.-based journalist, is AHCJ’s topic leader on social determinants of health and curates related material at healthjournalism.org. She welcomes questions and suggestions on resources and tip sheets at determinants@healthjournalism.org.

Photo: Courtesy of the San Diego Union TribuneTent “cities” have swelled in southern California, creating crowded and unsanitary conditions.

Along the southern California coastline, surging development has triggered a housing boom that has also come at a heavy price for health.

Numerous outlets have been tracking what U.S. health officials say is the deadliest outbreak of hepatitis A in the country, according to The Washington Post. State officials have declared an emergency, and officials are scrambling to contain the spread of infection in one of the country’s most densely populated areas.

Hepatitis infection lurks in unclean areas and is spread by contamination of food or water. The disease, which attacks the liver, is known more as one affecting developing countries rather than developed nations such as the United States.

Still, hundreds have been infected in San Diego and, although the disease is not typically fatal, numerous people – mostly homeless – have died, according to the Post. At least 20 deaths have been reported, the San Diego Union-Tribune reported at the end of October.

Health officials are seeking to contain the outbreak, which has mostly centered on San Diego’s downtown.  But with high housing prices putting a squeeze on affordable – and clean — living arrangements, there’s no short-term solution in sight.

Worse, the infection appears to be spreading to Los Angeles, where housing is also a concern, consumer health information site Healthline reported, citing country health officials.

“At the heart of this homeless crisis is a housing crisis,” Roman Catholic deacon Jim Vargas, who oversees one of the state’s largest homeless service providers, told the Post’s Scott Wilson. “Low vacancy rates and high rents is a very toxic combination for our population. Our clients don’t stand a chance against that dynamic.”

Possible solutions are being weighed from tiny homes to vaccinating the homeless, reporters at The San Diego Union-Tribune have said. The lack of public restrooms, coupled with poor conditions in existing ones, is also a key driver of the crisis.

Meanwhile, the Union-Tribune noted that officials there are still trying to hunt down the person at the root of the outbreak, and that it remains unclear whether they are from the area or elsewhere in the United States, which would present a different quandary.

“Patient zero coming from a different part of the county speaks to how we need to have every part of the community stepping up to solve this problem,” James Haug, who owns a condo in downtown San Diego and heads an association representing a business improvement district, told the Tribune’s Paul Sisson and Jeanette Steele.

The Union-Tribune has been extensively covering the outbreak and has published a Hepatitis Crisis special section. You can read more of their ongoing coverage here.

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