Don't Bring a Case of Hepatitis A Back from Your Mexican Caribbean Vacation

passport and travel health advisory

Getty Images/JodiJacobson

An outbreak of Hepatitis A, a serious liver disease, among travelers to Tulum, Mexico has prompted the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to issue an advisory to U.S. visitors to the region.

As of May 1, 2015, a total of 27 cases of hepatitis A have been reported in U.S. travelers who went to Tulum, Mexico" in the Mexican Caribbean, according to the CDC. "All of the people traveled between the dates of Feb. 15, 2015, and March 20, 2015."

"CDC recommends that travelers to Mexico get vaccinated against hepatitis A and follow all food and water precautions ... If you returned from travel to Tulum, Mexico, in the last 14 days, talk to your doctor about receiving a dose of hepatitis A vaccine, which can prevent or reduce the symptoms of hepatitis A if given within 14 days of exposure."

What is Hepatitis A?

Hepatitis A is a viral inflammation of the liver that is highly contagious. It is typically spread when people ingest fecal matter on food, in drinks, on objects, or through sexual contact. Even a microscopic amount of fecal matter -- often the result of poor hygiene among food-handlers -- can cause illness. 

A case of Hepatitis A can range in severity from mild illness lasting a few weeks to a severe illness lasting several months, according to CDC. Symptoms, if they occur at all, typically appear 2-6 weeks after infection and may include:

  • Fever
  • Vomiting
  • Grey-colored stools
  • Fatigue
  • Abdominal pain
  • Joint pain
  • Loss of appetite
  • Dark urine
  • Jaundice

A simple blood test can tell you whether you have been infected with Hepatitis A. 

How to Avoid Getting Sick

The CDC recommends the Hepatitis A vaccine for all children, people with certain risk factors and medical conditions, and travelers to certain international countries "even if travel occurs for short times or on closed resorts." The vaccine is delivered in two doses, six months apart, so plan ahead if you are intending to travel to any parts of the non-developed world.

Although rare in the U.S., most new cases of Hepatitis A now occur among American travelers who got infected in places where Hepatitis A remains common, such as Mexico.

One way that travelers can minimize their risk of contracting Hepatitis A is to eat safe foods, such as:

  • Food that is cooked and served hot
  • Hard-boiled eggs
  • Fruits and vegetables you have washed in clean water or peeled yourself
  • Pasteurized dairy products

On the other hand, don't eat:

  • Food served at room temperature
  • Food from street vendors
  • Raw or soft-cooked (runny) eggs
  • Raw or undercooked (rare) meat or fish and other seafood
  • Unwashed or unpeeled raw fruits and vegetables
  • Peelings from fruit or vegetables
  • Condiments (such as salsa) made with fresh ingredients
  • Salads
  • Unpasteurized dairy products
  • ”Bushmeat” (monkeys, bats, or other wild game)

As far as beverages go, you should drink:

  • Bottled water that is sealed (carbonated is safer)
  • Water that has been disinfected (boiled, filtered, treated)
  • Ice made with bottled or disinfected water
  • Carbonated drinks
  • Hot coffee or tea
  • Pasteurized milk

Don't drink:

  • Tap or well water
  • Ice made with tap or well water
  • Drinks made with tap or well water (such as reconstituted juice)
  • Open market drinks made with fresh fruit pulp (aguas frescas)
  • Flavored ice and popsicles
  • Unpasteurized milk

Travelers also should practice good hygiene and cleanliness, including:

  • Washing your hands often. If soap and water aren’t available, use hand sanitizer containing at least 60 percent alcohol.
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth. 
  • Try to avoid close contact, such as kissing, hugging, or sharing eating utensils or cups.
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