Kentucky typically sees about 20 cases a year of hepatitis A. But so far this year, 132 cases have been reported in the Louisville area alone, according to the Louisville Department of Public Health and Wellness. Four new cases were reported over the weekend, and one person has died from the disease.
And Louisville is part of a bigger trend of outbreaks of hepatitis A across the country, including in Michigan, California and Utah. 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.
“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,” Caloia said. “But we don’t know.”
Hepatitis A is a serious liver disease that usually lasts for about three months, and it’s usually spread through fecal matter that ends up on hands. Many people who contract hepatitis A think at first they have a stomach bug. But in most cases, a person develops jaundice, which colors the skin and eyes yellow.
“So, something that’s contaminated usually with a microscopic amount of debris is ingested by someone else,” Caloia said. “It’s easily spread in areas where there’s poor hygiene.”
But because there’s a chance that people could get the disease by coming into contact with food handled by someone with hepatitis A, the city alerted the public when two workers — one at a Kroger on Dixie Highway and one at a Denny’s restaurant in St. Matthews — were diagnosed with the disease last week. They recommended people who’d bought produce from that Kroger store or eaten at the Denny’s restaurant get a vaccination.
But Caloia said the people most at-risk are family members and friends of people with hepatitis A.
“The good thing about those kind of cases that is if the person is doing the proper hand hygiene and food handling techniques, the risk is actually really low for spreading that to the community,” Caloia said. “Family members that live inside the home, where they’re sharing the same bathroom and the same food items, those risks are much higher than for instance the produce handler at Kroger’s.”
Caloia recommends everyone getting vaccinated for hepatitis A, whether or not they know someone with the disease. These vaccines can be found at most area chain pharmacies, she said.