Lebanon’s second city of Tripoli has reported 174 cases of hepatitis A since an outbreak began in recent weeks.
Health officials believe it could be linked to possible contamination that occurred when work was being carried out on a local water system in late April.
The North Lebanon Water Corporation has said, however, that Tripoli’s water is safe for domestic and drinking use.
A Tripoli-based doctor said it was likely that there a handful of people who had also contracted Hepatitis A but were not aware.
Hepatitis A, which typically has an incubation period of two to four weeks, is a highly transmissible infection of the liver and is often associated with poor sanitation.
The disease “can cause debilitating symptoms and rarely acute liver failure, which is often fatal”, the World Health Organisation said.
Symptoms “range from mild to severe and can include fever, malaise, loss of appetite, diarrhoea, nausea, abdominal discomfort, dark-coloured urine and a yellowing of the eyes and skin”, the WHO reported, though “not everyone who is infected will have all the symptoms”.
Joseph Bakhache, head of Lebanon’s order of physicians, described hepatitis A as a “very contagious disease which, in exceptional cases, could cause a deficiency in the level of activity of the liver”.
Lebanon’s Health Minister Firass Abiad told The National that hepatitis A is endemic to the country and outbreaks are not uncommon, though he admitted the outbreak was larger than normal.
“We've had cases before but not as large as this outbreak,” he said.
There had been believed to be as many as 250 cases but Dr Abiad said this was incorrect and was due to duplicate reports of cases.
Health authorities are now working to contain the outbreak and ensure the local water supply is safe for use, he added.
“We are testing very regularly. And we have widened our scope of testing to make sure that we are able to ensure that, if there is any contamination, we know about it very early and then we can address it.”
The UN children's agency is also helping to provide people with access to clean water.
“Tripoli is an area where there’s a high incidence of poverty,” Dr Abiad said. “And with the economic situation, it’s understandable that people might not have full access to clean water.”
Lebanon is undergoing a severe economic collapse, with much of country being plunged into poverty. The local currency has lost more than 90 per cent of its value, while the state electricity provider is able to give out only a few hours of power a day — if that — forcing people to turn to expensive private generators.