A free vaccination program for Victorian men who have sex with men (MSM) will begin this month to combat an outbreak of hepatitis A.
To help stop the spread of the disease, Victoria's Deputy Chief Health Officer Dr Brett Sutton today announced the program would run from 22 January 2018 until 31 December 2018.
A free, two-dose course of hepatitis A vaccine will be available to all MSM in Victoria and all people who have injected drugs in the past 12 months.
There have been 27 confirmed cases of hepatitis A in Victoria over the past nine months that are linked to this outbreak.
All cases are male, with many reporting MSM sexual activity and who have not travelled overseas. Some cases are also people who inject drugs.
"Immunisation saves lives and protects others in the community," Dr Sutton said.
"It is important that all eligible people get the free hepatitis A vaccine to stop the spread of this serious disease."
Hepatitis A is spread through person-to-person transmission, including sexual activity, and is not limited to MSM. Transmission can also occur whilst sharing injecting equipment such as needles, and through the consumption of contaminated food and water.
"It's important to wash your hands and your body after sex to help stop the spread of hepatitis A. Make sure you're using condoms and changing condoms between any sexual activity," Dr Sutton said.
"We also strongly advise any confirmed cases with hepatitis A against engaging in any sexual activity that could increase the spread of the virus."
The hepatitis A strains detected in this outbreak are similar to those circulating in Europe.
Since 2016, hepatitis A outbreaks among MSM have been reported in 16 European countries and across the United States. A similar outbreak was reported in NSW in 2017, and people in other parts of Australia are also affected.
It can take between 15 to 50 days to develop symptoms after a susceptible person comes into contact with hepatitis A. Adults who get hepatitis A usually develop symptoms, which include fever, nausea, vomiting and abdominal pain, followed by dark urine and yellow skin/eyes (also known as jaundice).
"People can be infectious and transmit the infection to others for up to two weeks before they become unwell," Dr Sutton said.
"This means it is especially important to get vaccinated if you are at risk and are a food handler, healthcare worker or childcare worker, because you might transmit infection to vulnerable people before you realise you are ill."
Meanwhile, the Victorian Government, in partnership with the Victorian AIDS Council, has also launched a new immunisation campaign for MSM to encourage three other free vaccinations throughout 2018 -- against meningococcal disease, hepatitis B and human papillomavirus (HPV).
This campaign will feature videos, posters, radio and social media advertising and promotions at key LGBTIQ+ events and festivals such as this weekend's Midsumma Festival.
In addition to the free hepatitis A vaccine, the meningococcal ACWY vaccine is free for all MSM until 31 December 2018.
The Victorian Government has also made the HPV vaccine free for all MSM aged up to 26 years of age until 31 December 2018.
The hepatitis B vaccine remains free to all MSM as a long-term approach to protect against liver disease and liver cancer.
"Vaccination is safe, effective and provides the best protection against serious diseases. I urge all MSM to get all four free vaccines without delay," Dr Sutton said.
Reviewed 12 January 2018