Louisville records first hepatitis A death as state continues battling outbreak

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- Efforts to curb the hepatitis A outbreak in Louisville are getting high marks from state and federal health officials.

"While we're seeing some signs the outbreak may be slowing, there are still too many who are catching the disease that can be prevented," said Dr. Sarah Moyer, the director of the Louisville Metro Department of Public Health and Wellness.

She says Kentucky has the largest outbreak in the country with about 1,100 cases and eight deaths from the contagious liver disease. In Louisville, 540 people have been treated for hepatitis A, and 338 infected people were hospitalized or about 63 percent. Four have died in Louisville. 

Moyer said the disease is primarily transferred with close contact, and most infection stems from poor hand hygiene.

"The virus in this outbreak is being passed from person to person from poor hand washing, and we have no current evidence that it is being passed by food or drink, as was the case with the hepatitis A outbreak in 1988 here in Louisville."

Most of Louisville's hep A cases have involved factors like homelessness or recreational drug use, but recently there have been a growing number of cases in people with no risk factors. People who contract hepatitis A experience flu-like symptoms.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention epidemiologist Doug Thoroughman congratulated Louisville for its response to the outbreak. "Louisville has set the gold standard for responding to the hepatitis A outbreak and set standard for the rest of the country," he said.

Thoroughman explained that past outbreaks have centered on children, but this is the first time hep A has been widespread in adult populations. Ten states had widespread outbreaks. Nine are still effected. Only California has closed its emergency response. He said infection numbers are starting to go down in Louisville. He credits that reduction to the effort to get people vaccinated.

Hepatitis A cases have been reported in every zip code in Jefferson County. But Louisville Public Wellness Medical Director Dr. Lori Caloia said they have responded to clusters of infection downtown, near Churchill Downs, along the Dixie Highway corridor, in Shively, Pleasure Ridge Park and in the Portland neighborhood.

She urges everyone in Jefferson County get vaccinated. Since the outbreak began, 78,000 people in the county have been vaccinated, and 16,000 of those vaccinations were given by the health department.

Caloia said it's important for people to realize that hep A is a preventable disease. "If you share a cigarette, a joint, a drink, if you live with or occasionally spend the night with a person who is infected, you are at risk," she said. Hand washing with soap is the first defense in preventing the spread of hepatitis A. Hand sanitizers are largely ineffective in killing the virus.

About 62 percent of cases in Jefferson County involve people who use illegal drugs, 25 percent are homeless, three percent are men who have sex with men and 10 percent do not have any risk factors.

Kentucky Department for Public Health Commissioner Jeffrey D. Howard said that more hep A cases are being reported in rural areas, and the state has spent more than $2 million responding to the outbreak. Howard congratulated Louisville health officials for the effort to educate the public and stem the outbreak over the past ten months.

Cases in Kentucky are genetically linked to outbreaks in Salt Lake City, Utah and San Diego, California.

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