(BPT) - Hepatitis A cases are on the rise, according to new data released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Hepatitis A is common in many parts of the world, even in popular tourist destinations such as Mexico, most other countries in Central and South America and some Caribbean countries. Past research has shown that almost half of new cases of hepatitis A in the United States are from Americans traveling abroad and getting infected. In fact, the CDC recently issued a travel advisory due to an outbreak of hepatitis A at a popular tourist destination. Fortunately, the disease can be easily prevented with a safe and effective vaccine.

What is hepatitis A?

Hepatitis A is a highly contagious liver infection caused by the hepatitis A virus. The infection can range in severity from a mild illness lasting a few weeks to a severe disease lasting several months.  In severe cases, people can die from hepatitis A. Symptoms can include one or more of the following: nausea, vomiting, fever, yellow eyes or skin, stomach pain, dark urine, joint pain or fatigue. 

How is hepatitis A spread?

Hepatitis A is usually spread when a person ingests the virus from contact with objects, food, or drinks contaminated by feces or stool from an infected person. In countries where hepatitis A is common, the virus can be easily spread from unclean water sources or when an infected person does not thoroughly wash his/her hands and then touches objects or food.  Food can become contaminated at any point: growing, harvesting, processing, handling and even after cooking.  Regardless of where travelers eat or stay – even if travel is restricted to high-end resort destinations – it is still possible to get infected with the hepatitis A virus. 

Who’s at risk?

All unvaccinated travelers to countries where hepatitis A is common are at risk for getting infected. So even if you plan to travel to urban areas or luxury resort destinations and try to be careful about what you eat and drink, you could still be at risk for hepatitis A.

What can you do to protect yourself from hepatitis A?

Get vaccinated. The CDC recommends that all travelers to regions where hepatitis A is common get vaccinated. The hepatitis A vaccine is safe and effective, and is the best way to prevent infection with the virus. The hepatitis A vaccine is typically given in two doses, six months apart, in order to give a person long-term protection against the virus. Even if you are unable to get both shots before you travel, one dose is better – and safer – than traveling unvaccinated.  The first dose of vaccine should be administered as soon as travel is considered - two weeks or more before departure if possible. However, one dose of vaccine administered at any time before departure can provide adequate protection for mostly healthy persons. 

Check if your health plan will cover travel related vaccines – not all plans will. Vaccinations are available at many doctors’ offices, as well as at travel clinics. Low cost vaccination may be obtained at certain pharmacies or your local health department. So before you travel abroad, consider getting this form of travel insurance! 

Learn more about hepatitis A and other CDC travel-related vaccine recommendations here.