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Hepatitis A

Epidemiology and Prevention of Vaccine-Preventable Diseases

The Pink Book: Course Textbook - 12th Edition Second Printing (May 2012)

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The first descriptions of hepatitis (epidemic jaundice) are generally attributed to Hippocrates. Outbreaks of jaundice, probably hepatitis A, were reported in the 17th and 18th centuries, particularly in association with military campaigns. Hepatitis A (formerly called infectious hepatitis) was first differentiated epidemiologically from hepatitis B, which has a long incubation period, in the 1940s. Development of serologic tests allowed definitive diagnosis of hepatitis B. In the 1970s, identification of the virus, and development of serologic tests helped differentiate hepatitis A from other types of non-B hepatitis.

Until 2004, hepatitis A was the most frequently reported type of hepatitis in the United States. In the prevaccine era, the primary methods used for preventing hepatitis A were hygienic measures and passive protection with immune globulin (IG). Hepatitis A vaccines were licensed in 1995 and 1996. These vaccines provide long-term protection against hepatitis A virus (HAV) infection. The similarities between the epidemiology of hepatitis A and poliomyelitis suggest that widespread vaccination of appropriate susceptible populations can substantially lower disease incidence, eliminate virus transmission, and ultimately, eliminate HAV infection.

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Hepatitis A Virus

Hepatitis A is caused by infection with HAV, a nonenveloped RNA virus that is classified as a picornavirus. It was first isolated in 1979. Humans are the only natural host, although several nonhuman primates have been infected in laboratory conditions. Depending on conditions, HAV can be stable in the environment for months. The virus is relatively stable at low pH levels and moderate temperatures but can be inactivated by high temperature (185°F [85°C] or higher), formalin, and chlorine.


HAV is acquired by mouth (through fecal-oral transmission) and replicates in the liver. After 10–12 days, virus is present in blood and is excreted via the biliary system into the feces. Peak titers occur during the 2 weeks before onset of illness. Although virus is present in serum, its concentration is several orders of magnitude less than in feces. Virus excretion begins to decline at the onset of clinical illness, and has decreased significantly by 7–10 days after onset of symptoms. Most infected persons no longer excrete virus in the feces by the third week of illness. Children may excrete virus longer than adults.

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Clinical Features

The incubation period of hepatitis A is approximately 28 days (range 15–50 days). The clinical course of acute hepatitis A is indistinguishable from that of other types of acute viral hepatitis. The illness typically has an abrupt onset of fever, malaise, anorexia, nausea, abdominal discomfort, dark urine and jaundice. Clinical illness usually does not last longer than 2 months, although 10%–15% of persons have prolonged or relapsing signs and symptoms for up to 6 months. Virus may be excreted during a relapse.

The likelihood of symptomatic illness from HAV infection is directly related to age. In children younger than 6 years of age, most (70%) infections are asymptomatic. In older children and adults, infection is usually symptomatic, with jaundice occurring in more than 70% of patients. HAV infection occasionally produces fulminant hepatitis A.

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In the prevaccine era, fulminant hepatitis A caused about 100 deaths per year in the United States. The case-fatality rate among persons of all ages with reported cases was approximately 0.3% but could be higher among older persons (approximately 2% among persons 40 years of age and older).

Hepatitis A results in substantial morbidity, with associated costs caused by medical care and work loss. Hospitalization rates for hepatitis A are 11%–22%. Adults who become ill lose an average of 27 work days per illness, and health departments incur the costs of postexposure prophylaxis for an average of 11 contacts per case. Average direct and indirect costs of hepatitis A range from $1,817 to $2,459 per adult case and $433 to $1,492 per pediatric case. In 1989, the estimated annual U.S. total cost of hepatitis A was more than $200 million.

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Laboratory Diagnosis

Hepatitis A cannot be distinguished from other types of viral hepatitis on the basis of clinical or epidemiologic features alone. Serologic testing is required to confirm the diagnosis. Virtually all patients with acute hepatitis A have detectable IgM anti-HAV. Acute HAV infection is confirmed during the acute or early convalescent phase of infection by the presence of IgM anti-HAV in serum. IgM generally becomes detectable 5–10 days before the onset of symptoms and can persist for up to 6 months.

IgG anti-HAV appears in the convalescent phase of infection, remains present in serum for the lifetime of the person, and confers enduring protection against disease. The antibody test for total anti-HAV measures both IgG anti-HAV and IgM anti-HAV. Persons who are total anti-HAV positive and IgM anti-HAV negative have serologic markers indicating immunity consistent with either past infection or vaccination.

Molecular virology methods such as polymerase chain reaction (PCR)-based assays can be used to amplify and sequence viral genomes. These assays are helpful to investigate common-source outbreaks of hepatitis A. Providers with questions about molecular virology methods should consult with their state health department or the CDC Division of Viral Hepatitis.

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Medical Management

There is no specific treatment for hepatitis A virus infection. Treatment and management of HAV infection are supportive.

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Hepatitis A occurs throughout the world. It is highly endemic in some areas, particularly Central and South America, Africa, the Middle East, Asia, and the Western Pacific.


Humans are the only natural reservoir of the virus. There are no insect or animal vectors. A chronic HAV carrier state has not been reported.


HAV infection is acquired primarily by the fecal-oral route by either person-to-person contact or ingestion of contaminated food or water. Because the virus is present in blood during the illness prodrome, HAV has been transmitted on rare occasions by transfusion. Although HAV may be present in saliva, transmission by saliva has not been demonstrated. Waterborne outbreaks are infrequent and are usually associated with sewage-contaminated or inadequately treated water.

Temporal Pattern

There is no appreciable seasonal variation in hepatitis A incidence.


Viral shedding persists for 1 to 3 weeks. Infected persons are most likely to transmit HAV 1 to 2 weeks before the onset of illness, when HAV concentration in stool is highest. The risk then decreases and is minimal the week after the onset of jaundice.

Risk Factors

Hepatitis A - United States, 1990-2000 Risk Factors

graph showing Hepatitis A risk factors in U.S. 1990-2000 as discussed in the Epidemiology, Risk Factors section

From 1990 through 2000, the most frequently reported source of infection was personal contact (sexual or household) with an infected person (14%). Two percent of cases involved a child or employee in child care; 6% occurred in a contact of a child or employee in child care; 5% occurred among persons reporting recent international travel; and 4% occurred in the context of a recognized foodborne outbreak. Injection-drug use was a reported risk factor in 6% of cases; men who have sex with men represented 10% of cases. Forty-five percent of reported hepatitis A case-patients could not identify a risk factor for their infection.

Groups at increased risk for hepatitis A or its complications include international travelers, men who have sex with men, and users of illegal drugs. Outbreaks of hepatitis A have also been reported among persons working with hepatitis A–infected primates. This is the only occupational group known to be at increased risk for hepatitis A.

Persons with chronic liver disease are not at increased risk of infection but are at increased risk of acquiring fulminant hepatitis A. Persons with clotting factor disorders may be at increased risk of HAV because of administration of solvent/detergent-treated factor VIII and IX concentrates.

Foodhandlers are not at increased risk for hepatitis A because of their occupation, but are noteworthy because of their critical role in common-source foodborne HAV transmission. Healthcare personnel do not have an increased prevalence of HAV infections, and nosocomial HAV transmission is rare. Nonetheless, outbreaks have been observed in neonatal intensive care units and in association with adult fecal incontinence. Institutions for persons with developmental disabilities previously were sites of high HAV endemicity. But as fewer children have been institutionalized and conditions within these institutions have improved, HAV incidence and prevalence have decreased. However, sporadic outbreaks can occur. Schools are not common sites for HAV transmission. Multiple cases among children at a school require investigation of a common source. Workers exposed to sewage have not reported any work-related HAV infection in the United States, but serologic data are not available.

Children play an important role in HAV transmission. Children generally have asymptomatic or unrecognized illnesses, so they may serve as a source of infection, particularly for household or other close contacts.

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Secular Trends in the United States

Hepatitis A - United States, 1966-2009

graph showing Hepatitis A cost by year in U.S. 1966-2009 as discussed in the Secular Trends in the US section

In the United States, hepatitis A has occurred in large nationwide epidemics approximately every 10 years, with the last increase in cases in 1989. However, between epidemics HAV infection continues to occur at relatively high rates. Hepatitis A became nationally reportable as a distinct entity in 1966. The largest number of cases reported in one year (59,606) was in 1971. A total of 5,970 cases was reported in 2004. After adjusting for underreporting, 20,000 infections are estimated to have occurred in 2004, approximately half of which were symptomatic. Hepatitis A rates have been declining since 1995, and since 1998 have been at historically low levels. A total of 1,987 cases was reported in 2009. The wider use of vaccine is probably contributing to this marked decrease in hepatitis A rates in the United States.

Historically, children 2 through 18 years of age have had the highest rates of hepatitis A (15 to 20 cases per 100,000 population in the early to mid-1990s). Since 2002, rates among children have declined and the incidence of hepatitis A is now similar in all age groups.

Based on testing from phase 1 of the Third National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES III) conducted during 1988 through 1994, the prevalence of total antibody to HAV (anti-HAV) among the general U.S. population is 33%. Seroprevalence of HAV antibody increases with age, from 9% among 6- to 11-year-olds to 75% among persons 70 years of age and older. Anti-HAV prevalence is highest among Mexican-Americans (70%), compared with blacks (39%) and whites (23%). Anti-HAV prevalence is inversely related to income.

Prior to 2000, the incidence of reported hepatitis A was substantially higher in the western United States than in other parts of the country. From 1987 to 1997, 11 mostly western states (Arizona, Alaska, Oregon, New Mexico, Utah, Washington, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Idaho, Nevada, California) accounted for 50% of all reported cases but only 22% of the U.S. population. Many of these high-incidence states began routine hepatitis A vaccination programs for children in the late 1990s. Since 2002, rates have been similar in all parts of the country.

Hepatitis A Incidence by Vaccination Recommendation Status 1990-2004graph showing Hepatitis A incidence by vaccination recommendation status cost per 100,000 population by year in U.S. 1990-2004 as discussed in the Secular Trends in the US section


Hepatitis A Incidence by Age Group, 1990-2004graph showing Hepatitis A age group cost per 100,000 population by year in U.S. 1990-2004 as discussed in the Secular Trends in the US section


Many hepatitis A cases in the United States occur in the context of communitywide epidemics. Communities that experience such epidemics can be classified as high-rate and intermediate-rate communities. High-rate communities typically have epidemics every 5 to 10 years that may last for several years with substantial rates of disease (as high as 700 cases per 100,000 population annually during outbreaks) but few cases among persons 15 years of age and older. These communities often are relatively well-defined either geographically or ethnically and include Native American, Alaska Native, Pacific Islander, and selected Hispanic communities and certain religious communities. Experience with hepatitis A vaccination programs in these high-rate communities has shown that when relatively high (65% to 80%) first-dose vaccination coverage of preschool and school-age children is achieved and routine vaccination of young children is sustained, ongoing outbreaks of hepatitis A could be interrupted. In these areas, sustained reduction in HAV incidence has been achieved and subsequent outbreaks have been prevented.

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Case Definition

The case definition for hepatitis A was approved by the Council of State and Territorial Epidemiologists (CSTE) in 1997. It reflects a clinical diagnosis of hepatitis and, because HAV cannot be differentiated from other types of viral hepatitis on clinical or epidemiologic features alone, serologic evidence of HAV-specific IgM antibody is necessary.

The clinical case definition for hepatitis A is an acute illness with discrete onset of symptoms, and jaundice or elevated serum aminotransferase levels. The laboratory criterion for diagnosis is a positive IgM anti-HAV.

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Hepatitis A Vaccine


Two inactivated whole-virus hepatitis A vaccines are available: HAVRIX (GlaxoSmithKline) and VAQTA (Merck). To produce each vaccine, cell culture–adapted virus is propagated in human fibroblasts, purified from cell lysates, inactivated with formalin, and adsorbed to an aluminum hydroxide adjuvant. HAVRIX is prepared with a preservative (2-phenoxyathanol); VAQTA does not contain a preservative. Both vaccines are available in both pediatric and adult formulations. The pediatric formulations of both vaccines are approved for persons 12 months through 18 years. The adult formulations are approved for persons 19 years and older.

Immunogenicity and Vaccine Efficacy

Both vaccines are highly immunogenic. More than 95% of adults will develop protective antibody within 4 weeks of a single dose of either vaccine, and nearly 100% will seroconvert after receiving two doses. Among children and adolescents, more than 97% will be seropositive within a month of the first dose. In clinical trials, all recipients had protective levels of antibody after two doses.

Both vaccines are highly effective in preventing clinical hepatitis A. The efficacy of HAVRIX in protecting against clinical hepatitis A was 94% among 40,000 Thai children 1 to 16 years of age who received two doses 1 month apart while living in villages with high HAV disease rates. The efficacy of VAQTA in protecting against clinical hepatitis A was 100% among 1,000 New York children 2 to 16 years of age who received one dose while living in a community with a high HAV disease rate.

Data concerning the long-term persistence of antibody and immune memory are limited because the current vaccines have been available only since 1995 and 1996. Estimates of antibody persistence derived from kinetic models of antibody decline indicate that protective levels of anti-HAV could be present for 20 years or longer. Other mechanisms (e.g., cellular) may contribute to long-term protection, but this is unknown. The need for booster doses will be determined by postmarketing surveillance studies.

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Vaccination Schedule and Use

Following its introduction in 1995, hepatitis A vaccine was primarily targeted to persons at increased risk for HAV infection, particularly international travelers. While this strategy prevented infection in this group and in other vaccinated individuals, it had little or no impact on the incidence of HAV infection in the United States.

As a result of successful vaccination programs in areas with a high incidence of HAV infection, the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP) in 1999 recommended that routine vaccination of children 2 years of age and older with hepatitis A vaccine be implemented in states, counties or communities where the average annual incidence of hepatitis A during 1987 through 1997 was 20 cases per 100,000 population or higher (i.e., at least twice the U.S. average of 10 cases per 100,000 population). ACIP also recommended that routine vaccination be considered for states, counties or communities where the average annual incidence of hepatitis A during 1987 through 1997 was 10 or more cases but less than 20 cases per 100,000 population. These strategies appear to have significantly reduced the incidence of hepatitis A in these areas.

Based on the successful implementation of childhood hepatitis A vaccination programs in high incidence areas, ACIP recommended in 2005 that all children should receive hepatitis A vaccine at 12 through 23 months of age. Vaccination should be integrated into the routine childhood vaccination schedule. Children who are not vaccinated by 2 years of age can be vaccinated at subsequent visits. ACIP encourages states, counties, and communities with existing hepatitis A vaccination programs for children 2 through 18 years of age to maintain these programs.

Persons at increased risk for HAV infection, or who are at increased risk for complications of HAV infection, should continue to be routinely vaccinated.

HAVRIX is available in two formulations: pediatric (720 ELISA units [EL.U.] per 0.5-mL dose) and adult (1,440 EL.U. per 1.0-mL dose). Children 1 through 18 years of age should receive a single primary dose of the pediatric formulation followed by a booster dose 6 to 12 months later. Adults 19 years of age and older receive one dose of the adult formulation followed by a booster 6 to 12 months later. The vaccine should be administered intramuscularly into the deltoid muscle. A needle length appropriate for the vaccinee’s age and size (minimum of 1 inch) should be used.

VAQTA is quantified in units (U) of antigen and is available in pediatric and adult formulations. Children 1 through 18 years of age should receive one dose of pediatric formulation (25 U per dose) with a booster dose 6 to 18 months later. Adults 19 years of age and older should receive one dose of adult formulation (50 U per dose) with a booster dose 6 to 18 months after the first dose. The vaccine should be administered intramuscularly into the deltoid muscle. A needle length appropriate for the vaccinee’s age and size should be used (minimum of 1 inch).

Limited data indicate that vaccines from different manufacturers are interchangeable. Completion of the series with the same product is preferable. However, if the originally used product is not available or not known, vaccination with either product is acceptable.

For both vaccines, the booster dose given should be based on the person’s age at the time of the booster dose, not the age when the first dose was given. For example, if a person received the first dose of the pediatric formulation of VAQTA at 18 years of age, and returns for the booster dose at age 19 years, the booster dose should be the adult formulation, not the pediatric formulation.

The minimum interval between the first and booster doses of hepatitis A vaccine is 6 calendar months. If the interval between the first and booster doses of hepatitis A vaccine extends beyond 18 months, it is not necessary to repeat the first dose.

Combination Hepatitis A and Hepatitis B Vaccine

In 2001, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved a combination hepatitis A and hepatitis B vaccine (Twinrix, GlaxoSmithKline). Each dose of Twinrix contains 720 EL.U. of hepatitis A vaccine (equivalent to a pediatric dose of HAVRIX), and 20 mcg of hepatitis B surface antigen protein (equivalent to an adult dose of Engerix-B). The vaccine is administered in a three-dose series at 0, 1, and 6 months. Appropriate spacing of the doses must be maintained to assure long-term protection from both vaccines. The first and second doses should be separated by at least 4 weeks, and the second and third doses should be separated by at least 5 months. Twinrix is approved for persons aged 18 years and older and can be used in persons in this age group with indications for both hepatitis A and hepatitis B vaccines.

In 2007, FDA approved an alternative schedule for Twinrix with doses at 0,7, and 21 through 30 days and a booster dose 12 months after the first dose.

Because the hepatitis B component of Twinrix is equivalent to a standard dose of hepatitis B vaccine, the schedule is the same whether Twinrix or single-antigen hepatitis B vaccine is used.

Single-antigen hepatitis A vaccine may be used to complete a series begun with Twinrix and vice versa. A person 19 years of age or older who receives one dose of Twinrix may complete the hepatitis A series with two doses of adult formulation hepatitis A vaccine separated by at least 5 months. A person who receives two doses of Twinrix may complete the hepatitis A series with one dose of adult formulation hepatitis A vaccine or Twinrix 5 months after the second dose. A person who begins the hepatitis A series with single-antigen hepatitis A vaccine may complete the series with two doses of Twinrix or one dose of adult formulation hepatitis A vaccine. An 18-year-old should follow the same schedule using the pediatric formulation.

Persons at Increased Risk for Hepatitis A or Severe Outcomes of Infection

Persons at increased risk for hepatitis A should be identified and vaccinated. Hepatitis A vaccine should be strongly considered for persons 1 year of age and older who are traveling to or working in countries where they would have a high or intermediate risk of hepatitis A virus infection. These areas include all areas of the world except Canada, Western Europe and Scandinavia, Japan, New Zealand, and Australia.

The first dose of hepatitis A vaccine should be administered as soon as travel is considered. For healthy persons 40 years of age or younger, 1 dose of single antigen vaccine administered at any time before departure can provide adequate protection.

Unvaccinated adults older than 40 years of age, immunocompromised persons, and persons with chronic liver disease planning to travel in 2 weeks or sooner should receive the first dose of vaccine and also can receive immune globulin at the same visit. Vaccine and IG should be administered with separate syringes at different anatomic sites.

Travelers who choose not to receive vaccine should receive a single dose of IG (0.02 mL/kg), which provides protection against HAV infection for up to 3 months. Persons whose travel period is more than 2 months should be administered IG at 0.06 mL/kg. IG should be repeated in 5 months for prolonged travel.

In 2009 ACIP recommended hepatitis A vaccination for all previously unvaccinated persons who anticipate close personal contact (e.g., household contact or regular babysitting) with an international adoptee from a country of high or intermediate endemicity during the first 60 days following arrival of the adoptee in the United States. The first dose of the 2-dose hepatitis A vaccine series should be administered as soon as adoption is planned, ideally 2 or more weeks before the arrival of the adoptee.

Other groups that should be offered vaccine include men who have sex with other men, persons who use illegal drugs, persons who have clotting factor disorders, and persons with occupational risk of infection. Persons with occupational risk include only those who work with hepatitis A-infected primates or with hepatitis A virus in a laboratory setting. No other groups have been shown to be at increased risk of hepatitis A infection due to occupational exposure.

Persons with chronic liver disease are not at increased risk for HAV infection because of their liver disease alone. However, these persons are at increased risk for fulminant hepatitis A should they become infected. Susceptible persons who have chronic liver disease should be vaccinated. Susceptible persons who either are awaiting or have received liver transplants should be vaccinated.

Hepatitis A vaccination is not routinely recommended for healthcare personnel, persons attending or working in child care centers, or persons who work in liquid or solid waste management (e.g., sewer workers or plumbers). These groups have not been shown to be at increased risk for hepatitis A infection. ACIP does not recommend routine hepatitis A vaccination for food service workers, but vaccination may be considered based on local epidemiology.

Prevaccination Serologic Testing

HAV infection produces lifelong immunity to hepatitis A, so there is no benefit of vaccinating someone with serologic evidence of past HAV infection. The risk for adverse events following vaccination of such persons is not higher than the risk for serologically negative persons. As a result, the decision to conduct prevaccination testing should be based chiefly on the prevalence of immunity, the cost of testing and vaccinating (including office visit costs), and the likelihood that testing will interfere with initiating vaccination.

Testing of children is not indicated because of their expected low prevalence of infection. Persons for whom prevaccination serologic testing will likely be most cost-effective include adults who were either born in or lived for extensive periods in geographic areas that have a high endemicity of HAV infection (e.g., Central and South America, Africa, Asia); older adolescents and adults in certain populations (i.e., Native Americans, Alaska Natives, and Hispanics); adults in certain groups that have a high prevalence of infection (see above); and adults 40 years of age and older.

Commercially available tests for total anti-HAV should be used for prevaccination testing.

Postvaccination Serologic Testing

Postvaccination testing is not indicated because of the high rate of vaccine response among adults and children. Testing methods sufficiently sensitive to detect low anti-HAV concentrations after vaccination are not approved for routine diagnostic use in the United States.

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Contraindications and Precautions to Vaccination

Hepatitis A vaccine should not be administered to persons with a history of a severe allergic reaction (anaphylaxis) to a vaccine component or following a prior dose of hepatitis A vaccine, hypersensitivity to alum or, in the case of HAVRIX, to the preservative 2-phenoxyethanol. Vaccination of persons with moderate or severe acute illnesses should be deferred until the person’s condition has improved. The safety of hepatitis A vaccination during pregnancy has not been determined. However, because it is an inactivated vaccine, the theoretical risk to the fetus is low. The risk associated with vaccination should be weighed against the risk for HAV infection. Because hepatitis A vaccine is inactivated, no special precautions are needed when vaccinating immunocompromised persons, although response to the vaccine may be suboptimal.

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Adverse Reactions Following Vaccination

For both vaccines, the most commonly reported adverse reaction following vaccination is a local reaction at the site of injection. Injection site pain, erythema, or swelling is reported by 20% to 50% of recipients. These symptoms are generally mild and self-limited. Mild systemic complaints (e.g., malaise, fatigue, low-grade fever) are reported by fewer than 10% of recipients. No serious adverse reactions have been reported.

Vaccine Storage and Handling

Hepatitis A vaccine should be stored and shipped at temperatures of 35°–46°F (2°–8°C) and should not be frozen.

Postexposure Prophylaxis

Immune globulin (IG) is typically used for postexposure prophylaxis of hepatitis A in susceptible persons. Hepatitis A vaccine may be used for postexposure prophylaxis in healthy persons 12 months through 40 years of age. Immune globulin is preferred for persons older than 40 years of age, children younger than 12 months of age, immunocompromised persons, and persons with chronic liver disease. See MMWR 2007;56(No.41):1080-84 (October 19, 2007) for details.

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Selected References

  1. Fiore AE, Feinstone SM, and Bell BP. Hepatitis A Vaccine. In: Plotkin SA, Orenstein, WA, and Offit PA, eds. Vaccines. 5th ed. China: Saunders; 2008:175–203.
  2. CDC. Update: prevention of hepatitis A virus after exposure to hepatitis A virus in international travelers. Updated recommendations of the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP). MMWR 2007;56:1080–84.
  3. CDC. Prevention of hepatitis A through active or passive immunization: recommendations of the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP). MMWR 2006;55(No. RR-7):1–23.
  4. CDC. Hepatitis A outbreak associated with green onions at a restaurant—Monaca, Pennsylvania, 2003. MMWR 2003;52:1155–7.
  5. CDC. Updated Recommendations from the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP) for Use of Hepatitis A Vaccine in Close Contacts of Newly Arriving International Adoptees. MMWR 2009;58;1006–7.
  6. Margolis HS, Alter MJ, Hadler SC. Viral hepatitis. In: Evans AS, Kaslow, RA, eds. Viral Infections of Humans. Epidemiology and Control. 4th ed. New York, NY: Plenum Medical Book Company; 1997:363–418.

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