Nearly 200 cases of hepatitis A have been reported in Louisville, KY, since November 2017, so local health officials are offering $25 vaccines to restaurant and foodservice workers in an attempt to curb the outbreak.
The initiative was launched this week by the Department of Public Health and Wellness in partnership with the University of Louisville’s Global Health Center, according to radio station WFPL.
Public Health and Wellness spokesman Dave Langdon said the department is subsidizing the vaccines with its own funds and donations. A single hepatitis A vaccine usually costs about $65, he said. This program is designed to encourage employers to help pay for vaccinations en masse to get as many foodservice and restaurant workers as possible vaccinated.
Nationwide, more than 1,200 people have been sickened by hepatitis A and more than 40 people have died. The outbreak is concentrated in less than 10 states, with California and Michigan the hardest hit.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says the first injection of the two-dose hepatitis A vaccine provides 94 percent protection for two to five years. The second dose given six months later provides 99 percent protection for 20 to 25 years.
People can also dramatically reduce their risk of contracting Hepatitis A by washing their hands frequently and thoroughly, especially after using the restroom, changing diapers, and eating, serving or preparing food.
Hepatitis A is a contagious liver disease that, unlike other forms of Hepatitis, does not usually result in chronic infection. It is caused by a virus and can range in severity from a mild illness lasting a few weeks to a severe illness lasting several months with life-long consequences.
Hepatitis A is usually spread when a person ingests the virus from contact with objects, food or drinks contaminated by microscopic particles of feces from an infected person. Symptoms include fatigue, nausea, abdominal pain, diarrhea and yellowing of the skin and eyes.
The infection can be more serious for people whose immune systems are compromised because of chemotherapy, pregnancy or other causes.
In Louisville, Against the Grain co-owner Adam Watson told WFPL that more than half of the restaurant and brewery’s employees received the vaccine this week. The company footed the bill.
“There’s obviously the human element of simply not wanting to inflict unnecessary misery on other people,” Watson told WFPL. “But, beyond that, there’s absolutely a PR nightmare that comes with being the place that infected somebody with hep A.”
Businesses with more than 20 employees can arrange to have “pop-up clinics” at which University of Louisville staff can administer the vaccines. Those with fewer employees can get the vaccines at the university and can call Dr. Ruth Carrico at 502-852-1324 to make arrangements.
Kentucky typically sees about 20 cases a year of Hepatitis A, but the Louisville area has had more than 200, with four new cases reported during this past the weekend. One person has died from the disease, according to previous reports from local health authorities.
Louisville is part of a bigger trend of outbreaks across the country, including in Michigan, California and Utah, where two deaths were reported Tuesday. Louisville Metro Department of Public Health and Wellness Medical Director Lori Caloia said the hepatitis A virus found in Louisville is a close match to cases in California. In terms of pathogen testing, a “close match” usually means more than a 98 percent chance the strains are the same.
“There’s many theories behind how that may have happened, whether it was a person traveling here, a homeless person who migrated to this area … but we don’t know,” she said.
“It’s easily spread in areas where there’s poor hygiene,” she said.
Last month, the city alerted the public after two food-service workers workers — one at a Kroger on Dixie Highway and one at a Denny’s restaurant in St. Matthews — were diagnosed with the disease.
Still, Caloia said, the people most at risk are family members and friends of people with hepatitis A, in which case proper hand hygiene and food-handling lower the risk.