More people in Estonia have contracted hepatitis A this January than during the whole of 2022. 23 patients in Estonia were diagnosed with hepatitis A in the first month of 2023, compared to a total of just 20 last year.
The increase in the number of patients with hepatitis A had already begun to be noticed in December.
"We started seeing our first patients (with the infection) in December last year. In the past, there have been very few patients, who have returned from a trip and brought hepatitis A back with them as a souvenir," said Dr. Pille Märtin, an infectious diseases specialist at West Tallinn Central Hospital.
Hepatitis A is a highly contagious, short-term liver infection caused by the hepatitis A virus.
According to Dr. Märtin, hepatitis A does not generally require hospital treatment. However, eight of the 23 patients diagnosed in January did end up being treated in infectious disease hospitals.
"If a person gets hepatitis A, maybe for the first few days they will just feel sick. They might have a fever, nausea, vomiting, and a stomachache. Having all these symptoms at the same time creates a situation where the person cannot eat or drink on their own and so needs some assistance in the form of intravenous fluids," Märtin explained.
Other common symptons include yellow skin or eyes, joint pain and tiredness.
While there is no specific cure for hepatitis A, most patients are able to recover by themselves, with the liver usually healing within six months leaving no lasting damage.
According to Varjas, due to the long incubation period, many people diagnosed with hepatitis A are often unaware of exactly where they contracted it.
"The incubation period for viral hepatitis A is 28 to 30 days on average. This means that those who start feeling ill today probably contracted the infection a month ago," said Estonian Health Board (Terviseamet) spokesperson Juta Varjas.
Yet, while in previous years the infection was mainly brought to Estonia by people returning after trips abroad, this year only a few of those falling ill have recently travelled outside the country.
Delays in its detection and diagnosis, as well as the identification of possible routes of transmission, can potentially lead to a larger outbreak, Varjas said.
Cases of hepatitis A have been identified in patients across Estonia, though so far there have been none in Ida-Viru County. Usually it is adults, who are most susceptible to the infection. However, in Estonia it is less common among the elderly, who seemingly gained lifelong immunity during the Soviet era, when outbreaks were more common.
According to Varjas, the best way to prevent transmission is to maintain high standards of hygiene. "This means washing your hands thoroughly after going to the toilet and making sure to follow the hygiene regulations when preparing food," Varjas said.
"And if people are planning a trip abroad, it's a good idea to consult a family doctor or infectious disease specialist to assess (the need for) vaccination," Varjas added.
Varjas also strongly recommends that family members of those who have contracted hepatitis A get vaccinated.
The last major outbreak of hepatitis A in Estonia was in 2011-2012. At that time, a total of 186 people contracted the infection, 83 percent of whom were in Viljandi.
Editor: Michael Cole