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Acute Hepatitis A outbreak includes three on staff at Indian Path Community Hospital

J. H. Osborne • Jan 4, 2019 at 1:12 PM

BLOUNTVILLE — A national uptick in acute Hepatitis A is evident in our region with a recent outbreak at the Sullivan County Jail and the announcement Thursday by Ballad Health that three workers at Indian Path Community Hospital in Kingsport were infected.

Vaccination

As a precaution all Indian Path “team members” were to receive the the preventative vaccine against Hepatitis A, according to a Ballad Health press release.

Dr. Stephen May, medical director for the Sullivan County Regional Health Department said that’s the same step taken in late November when an acute Hepatitis A case was confirmed among the inmate population at the Sullivan County Jail. May said the vaccine was administered to more than 600 inmates and jail employees as a preventative step and no additional cases were confirmed afterward.

Testing and vaccination are free and available at the Sullivan County Regional Health Department and the Northeast Tennessee Regional Health Department.

Children have been routinely vaccinated against Hepatitis A for the past 10 years or so, May said.

Normally, the vaccination includes two shots: an initial one followed up months later. But for the current outbreak situation, health officials are offering a one-shot vaccination. May said the one shot provides 95 to 98 percent protection for up to 10 years.

A big increase

May said while Tennessee typically sees three to four cases statewide in a year’s time, since December 2017 more than 600 cases had been confirmed,including 15 in the eight counties of Northeast Tennessee. Seven of those cases were in Sullivan County, May said, while Carter, Washington, Hancock, Hawkins, Unicoi, Johnson and Greene counties had a combined total of eight cases as of December 31.

Tennessee isn’t alone in experiencing such a dramatic increase in acute Hepatitis A cases, May said, and most of the cases are among three major groups health officials have targeted with awareness and vaccination programs: the homeless, men who have sex with men, and intravenous drug users. IV drug users account for about 60 percent of the cases, May said.

How it spreads

May said unsanitary conditions and close proximity are two major factors in the spread of Hepatitis A.

According to the Centers for Disease Control: 

• Hepatitis A usually spreads when a person unknowingly ingests the virus from objects, food, or drinks contaminated by small, undetected amounts of fecal matter from an infected person. Hepatitis A can also spread from close personal contact with an infected person such as through sex 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. Contamination of food or water is more likely to occur in countries where hepatitis A is common and in areas where there are poor sanitary conditions or poor personal hygiene.

How sick do you get?

“It makes you so sick 60 percent of those infected end up in the hospital,” May said. “The symptoms include nausea, vomiting, a fever and jaundice.”

People who have the virus are contagious for two weeks prior to showing symptoms, and become non-contagious about a week after symptoms are present, May said.

If you’re sick or worried

May said that if you’re having the above symptoms, or are a member of one of the three high-risk groups mentioned earlier in the article, or have a known exposure to a confirmed acute case, you should seek testing or vaccination.

Individuals with questions about possible hepatitis A exposure should contact the Sullivan County Health Department at (423) 279-2777 or the Northeast Tennessee Regional Health Office at (423) 979-3200.

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