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Health Officials Issue Hepatitis A Warning Ahead Of Thunder

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Amid a hepatitis A outbreak, state health officials are urging residents of Jefferson County and surrounding counties to get vaccinated for the virus. The warning comes ahead of peak tourist time in Kentucky, with Thunder over Louisville on Saturday and two weeks of Kentucky Derby-related events.

The state is also recommending that people in Bullit, Hardin, Greenup, Carter and Boyd counties get vaccinated. Across Kentucky, there have been 352 reported cases of hepatitis A — 216 cases have been reported in the Louisville area alone, according to Lori Caloia, medical director for the Louisville Metro Department of Public Health and Wellness.

Caloia said Thunder Over Louisville adds heightened concern over the possibility of the virus spreading, which is mostly spread through fecal matter.

“At Thunder, there are a lot of food vendors, [and] hand washing is not the first thing people think of when they go up to the food vendor, get something and then wander on their way,” said Caloia.

Donny Gill, public information officer with the Lincoln Trail District Health Department, which includes Hardin County, said the upcoming Derby events drove officials to issue the advisory to people in Hardin and nearby counties.

“It’s [transmitted] through feces, and it wouldn’t even be enough to see, but that virus could still be on your hands if you don’t wash your hands properly,” Gill said. “So when you have more people getting together like that, the potential for an outbreak greatly increases."

The organizers have tripled the number of hand-washing stations at Thunder this year, and posted signs about hand-washing all over the event area. Health officials also asked food vendors coming to town for Derby-related events to get their food workers vaccinated.

Hepatitis A is a serious liver disease that usually lasts for about three months. The virus itself can live outside of the body for extended periods of time.

People usually get hepatitis A by eating food handled by someone with the virus who doesn't thoroughly wash his or her hands after using the restroom. Hepatitis A can also spread from close personal contact with an infected person such as through sex or caring for someone who’s sick.

Many people who contract hepatitis A think at first that they have a stomach bug. But in most cases, a person develops jaundice, which colors the skin and eyes yellow.

Gill from Hardin County said 30 seconds of hand-washing, including between the fingernails and fingers, usually kills the virus.

“Another scary thing is, people can be infected and not showing symptoms and infect people for two weeks before they even show symptoms,” Gill said.

Safe Travels

Earlier this week the Indiana State Department of Health put out a travel advisory for Indiana residents who plan on traveling to Kentucky, advising them to get vaccinated.

However, Jeffrey Howard, the Kentucky Department for Public Health Acting Commissioner said it’s safe to travel to Kentucky.

“The CDC, the country’s foremost expert body in outbreak response, has not levied any travel restrictions nor made any recommendations for people to get vaccinated prior to traveling to a state with an active hepatitis outbreak,” Howard said. “The risk of contracting hepatitis A is greatest in those with risk factors for the disease, which in our outbreak include homelessness and drug abuse.”

Jails And Drug Treatment Centers

In Hardin County, health officials first saw people with cases of hepatitis A in December and January. Five people from Jefferson County developed symptoms while in drug rehabilitation facilities or jails in Hardin County, according to Donny Gill, the public information officer with the Lincoln Trail District Health Department.

“It’s so easily transmitted — if you have a group of people living together and one of them has hepatitis A, you have to do surveillance with everyone they’ve come into contact with,” Gill said. “That’s the danger with the jail system with someone with Hepatitis like that, or in a drug treatment facility. There’s a lot of common areas.”

Caloia with the Metro Health Department said they are offering free immunizations in Louisville jails and prisons, in addition to substance abuse treatment facilities. But she said the family and friends of people battling with addiction should also get vaccinated.

“We see this all the time with the opioid epidemic, where people are using drugs, they end up losing a job, they come back to live with family and then they’re around their family,” Caloia said. “So if they get infected then they’re going to expose people who personally may not be at risk. But because they’re around someone who is at risk, their [family member is] at risk.

Things to know:

  • Though there have been a few food workers diagnosed with hepatitis A in Jefferson County, officials say there are no known cases of people contracting the virus from a food worker in the area
  • School-aged children must get the vaccine before the 2018 school year
  • Hand sanitizer does not kill the hepatitis A virus
  • Populations at greatest risk for contracting hepatitis A include people who are homeless and people who inject drugs
  • The vaccine is not recommended for infants under the age of 1
Lisa Gillespie is WFPL's Health and Innovation Reporter.

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