Our View: As outbreak worsens, hygiene and vaccines are crucial

Published 9:33 am Monday, July 2, 2018

According to public health officials, Kentucky’s hepatitis A outbreak is now the worst in the U.S.

State Public Health department Commissioner Dr. Jeff Howard says the outbreak is the worst on record across the nation and in Kentucky, he nearly 1,000 people had contracted the disease in the state.

Six deaths have also been reported, three of which were in Louisville.

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Hepatitis is inflammation of the liver. Hep A is highly contagious and is caused by a virus that causes illness that can mild to severe and last weeks to several months. In rare cases, hepatitis A can be fatal.

Symptoms range from fever and fatigue to loss of appetite, nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, dark using, clay-colored stools, joint pain and jaundice (yellowing of the skin.) Symptoms will typically area within four weeks of exposure, but can range from as early as two days to seven weeks after.

The disease typically spreads when a person unknowingly ingests the virus from food, drinks or other objects contaminated by small, undetected amounts of stool from an infected person, according to the Centers for Disease Control. However, it can also spread from close personal contact with an infected person, such as through intercourse or caring for someone who is ill.

Contamination of food (this can include frozen and undercooked food) by hepatitis A can happen at any point: growing, harvesting, processing, handling and even after cooking.

The hepatitis A epidemic has been widely publicized. While that can incite fear for some, it should serve as a warning to everyone to take the necessary precautions to prevent contracting or spreading this disease.

The best way to prevent hepatitis A is to be vaccinated. To get the full benefit of the vaccine, more than one shot is needed.

Additionally, practicing good hand hygiene — including thoroughly washing your hands after using the bathroom, changing diapers and before preparing or eating food — is critical. These are basic hygiene recommendations that all of us are taught from childhood. Clean hands can prevent the spread of many illnesses and can protect you and others from this disease. That’s a simple step we can all take to help curb the spread of hepatitis in our state.

It is also critical that Kentucky public health officials continue to actively monitor the spread of the disease, reiterate the importance of hand hygiene at restaurants and other places where food will be served. Additional funding for vaccines and coordination with local agencies will be crucial to getting ahead of this outbreak.

Since hepatitis A is most common among substance abusers and the homeless, implementing education programs and making vaccines available to facilities serving these individuals — like shelters, rehabilitation centers, needle exchange programs and even detention centers — will be necessary.