Hepatitis A outbreak spreads in Kensington, prompting pleas to ‘Get vaccinated!’

Residents want the city to deal with the issue of human feces, which transmits the disease.

Kensington Opioid Sydney_Schaefer7
Sydney Schaefer / Billy Penn

Community leaders in Kensington say two residents have contracted hepatitis A within the last month, and are encouraging neighbors to get vaccinated as soon as possible.

Free vaccinations are currently being provided by the city for anyone worried about exposure.

Philadelphia health officials sounded the alarm this month about an upsurge in reports of the infectious disease. The number of cases citywide, about 30 annually, has quintupled in the last two years. Most at risk are people who are battling homelessness and drug addiction, according to health department data.

But in both of the current Kensington cases, the people stricken are active leaders in the neighborhood, with stable housing and no history of drug use.

The disease, a contagious liver infection, usually spreads through feces — a public health issue that Kensington residents and business owners contend with to a shocking degree.

Human waste is a common sight in the blocks around Kensington Avenue, which has been caught in the riptide of the opioid epidemic. It appears on sidewalks, in the streets, in vacant lots — even on some residents’ front stoops.

It’s also a remediable side effect of the ongoing crisis that the city hasn’t stepped up to address, says Nick Fury, a Kensington resident, civic leader and mechanic who owns an auto-body shop in the neighborhood.

“It amazes me that there is so much human suffering — and human feces — throughout this neighborhood,” he said. “But people are pooping on the street because they have no other option.”

Three quarters of hepatitis A cases documented in Philadelphia since May were among adults who reported drug use, health officials wrote in a July 19 report. More than a quarter were experiencing homelessness.

Kensington homeless encampments burst into public view two years ago, following the city’s much-criticized closure of El Campamento, a larger bivouac that existed for decades along the Conrail train tracks along Lehigh Avenue.

Somerset Neighbors for Better Living, a local civic group, suggested providing shower and bathroom trucks for the people living there. Other cities, like Minneapolis, have set up “sanitizing stations” to help quell the spread of disease in areas where people are living on the street.

Philly health officials said they’d look into best practices at the time, but no sanitation initiatives came to fruition. The issues persist despite the city’s efforts to curb permanent encampments.

“There is nothing being done [about the feces] short of calling 311 about the problem,” Fury said. “They want to open up a safe injection site, start with public restrooms.”

Both of the Kensington residents who contracted the disease have young children and dogs, he added, which they suspect may have been involved in accidental contact with poop.

Fury got vaccinated against it years ago before traveling abroad to developing countries. He never imagined the inoculation would also serve him at home, too. He’s encouraging others to get protected.

“If this is about to become an epidemic, the city won’t know it until they have all the stats,” he said. “By then, another dozen of my neighbors might contract this.”

There was a recent exposure scare in South Philly after an Acme food prep worker was identified with the disease.

Those with health insurance can get a shot at their doctor’s office. The Philadelphia Health Department is also offering free vaccinations on Tuesday and Thursdays, from July 30th through August 8, at a mobile clinic in Kensington’s McPherson Square.

Officials say they would extend the free service as needed. They ask that any cases of the virus be reported to them by calling 215-685-6740. For after hours reports, call 215-686-4514.

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