Hepatitis A outbreak worsens in West Virginia, Kentucky
August 4, 2018
By Naomi Spencer
4 August 2018
Hundreds of Kentuckians and West Virginians have been diagnosed with Hepatitis A, with dozens of new cases being reported in recent weeks. More than 1,200 cases have been reported in Kentucky, over half resulting in hospitalization. Eight Kentuckians have died from the infection. In West Virginia, at least 699 people have been diagnosed and two have died.
Officials in both states caution that the real rate may be far higher, and that the outbreak may take months or even years to peak.
Hepatitis A is a highly contagious infection of the liver, caused by contact with infected fecal matter. The virus can take several weeks to manifest symptoms. It causes abdominal pain, vomiting, diarrhea, fever, and jaundice. A large number of those diagnosed with Hep A are intravenous drug users, and many are homeless.
Although restaurants where workers are infected have dominated news headlines, overcrowded shelters and jails are among the primary sources of contracting the infection.
In Lexington, Kentucky, the Catholic Action Center homeless shelter began mandating a Hep A vaccine for people seeking overnight shelter, and has put clients on sanitizing all surfaces to help prevent contamination. Unlike many viruses, Hep A can remain alive on a surface for months.
Catholic Action Center co-founder Ginny Ramsey pointed out in a July 30 interview with reporter Mary Meehan of the Ohio Valley ReSource that low-wage restaurant workers and the homeless population are not mutually exclusive groups. “We do have a lot of people who do that,” she said; “about 40 percent of our clients have full-time jobs.”
In Ashland’s Boyd County, on the border with West Virginia, a spate of infections among food service workers prompted county health officials mandating vaccination of all food workers. The mandatory order reflects business owners’ distress at plummeting restaurant visits by many who are scared by local news reporting. Ohio Valley ReSource cited one restaurant franchise owner who said another restaurant “lost 70 percent of its customers after a Hep A infection was linked to the business.”
Since 2016, the CDC has warned of the danger of an HIV and Hepatitis C outbreak in Kentucky and West Virginia. In February, the Northern Kentucky Health Department reported a cluster of 43 cases of HIV, centered in injection drug users. Similarly, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found 40 new cases of HIV last year in West Virginia, spreading in 15 largely rural counties. Ten of the HIV-diagnosed individuals had already developed AIDS.
In Madison County, Kentucky, south of Lexington, the local health department has warned of a Hep A outbreak in the massively overcrowded detention center in Richmond. The facility was built to house 240 inmates, but currently houses over