HUNTINGTON – Misconceptions surrounding hepatitis A are permeating through the Ohio Valley community as more cases of the virus are reported.
The first Cabell County case in this outbreak was reported April 9. On May 11, the number of reported cases was 7. As of May 18, the number of reported cases was 14.
The latest case was a food service worker at O’Charley’s Restaurant and Bar in Barboursville, the first confirmed food service worker case in Cabell County. None of the cases in Cabell were sourced from restaurants.
Dr. Michael Kilkenny, medical director of the Cabell-Huntington Health Department, said that to blame the food service worker or the restaurant is unfair. He also said any concerns about eating at restaurants are unnecessary.
“As much as we want to point fingers at ‘dirty people,’ we all fail at some level in that regard,” he said of handwashing. “We want to be as conscientious as we possibly can … Anybody can get this disease – that is, anybody who is not immune to it. It can be through no fault of their own. Hand sanitizer, for instance, seems like a reasonable thing, but it does not kill hepatitis A.”
Hepatitis A is a viral disease of the liver and is spread from person to person by the “fecal-oral” route, often by inadequate handwashing after using the toilet or changing diapers. Hepatitis A usually spreads when a person unknowingly ingests the virus from objects, food or drinks contaminated by small, undetected amounts of stool from an infected person. It can also spread from close personal contact with an infected person such as through sex or caring for someone who is ill.
People can become infected with the virus and spread it without even knowing they have it, Kilkenny said.
The virus is able to survive outside of the body for months, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The health department recommends anyone who ate at O’Charley’s between May 6 and May 13 consider getting the hepatitis A vaccination, but Kilkenny said everyone who has not been vaccinated should consider getting it – unless you have already had hepatitis A, because you are now immune. The best way to prevent hepatitis A is getting vaccinated.
“A lot of older people especially got the disease when they were very young and they didn’t even know it because children don’t have symptoms like adults do,” Kilkenny said.
There is a test to determine if you have had the vaccination, but Kilkenny said it’s more costly and time consuming than just getting the vaccination. He said he does not recommend that method for anyone who has been in contact.
In West Virginia since 2006 when the vaccine became widely available, children have been required to receive the vaccination to attend pre-kindergarten. It is not required to attend public school.
The vaccine is most likely covered by insurance and can be found at any location that gives vaccines, including most pharmacies.
The health department does have the vaccine, but is limited in the number of insurance companies it can bill. Without insurance, the vaccine is $75 per dose at the health department and two doses are required, generally six months apart. The health department does accept West Virginia Medicaid, which covers the vaccine.
The health department does have resources to help those without insurance who cannot afford the vaccination, Kilkenny said. He said after passage of the Affordable Care Act, the federal government stopped supplying the vaccine for free.
“We have been working for weeks to vaccinate the high-risk population, and we are doing everything we can to limit the impact,” Kilkenny said. “We will keep people advised to the situation and if any changes to the recommendations occur, we will get them out immediately.”