Hepatitis A statistics shared at fiscal court meeting

At Tuesday night’s Bell County Fiscal Court meeting, Justin Curry, an environmentalist from the Bell County Health Department, shared statistics and other information surrounding Hepatitis A in the county.

In November 2017, a statewide Hepatitis A outbreak was declared and over the course of 15 months, the outbreak has become the largest in the nation with 4,288 reported cases, 2,065 hospitalizations, and 44 deaths from the disease.

Curry explained to the court that when the outbreak began the cases reported were in central Kentucky, the Louisville area and around Ashland in Boyd County. The numbers then started to increase to areas along the interstates and is now being reported in more rural areas.

The number statewide is starting to decrease, but the disease is on the rise in southeastern Kentucky.

“We’re at the point now where it’s going to start hitting our communities,” Curry said. “Right now, Whitley County has the worst prevalence rate in Kentucky. In October, they had about 27 cases, one month later it was 81, three weeks later it was 127. According to the latest numbers, they’re sitting at 194 now.”

In Bell County, the number of Hepatitis A cases reported has grown from nine to 40 in just two weeks.

“The main concern is that it follows a trend. We saw it hit Boyd County and Ashland and from there it worked into Greenup County and then Carter County. So, we expect to start seeing an increase in the counties neighboring Whitley,” Curry said.

Curry explained that another concern is that a 2016 CDC study ranked Bell County sixth nationally on a list of counties most vulnerable to an outbreak of HIV or Hepatitis C, both which have similar risk factors as Hepatitis A.

“Illicit drug use, any sort of homeless population that lacks access to hand washing facilities and a vulnerable group of food service workers are the three main risk factors,” Curry said. “A study done in the late 90s shows that one out of every five food service workers nationally is going to be an illicit drug user. The risk with food service workers is that if they’re infected they could potentially transmit that to others through the food they handle.”

Copies of ordinances that were passed by Boyd County Fiscal Court and the City of Ashland were provided to the Bell County Fiscal Court from Curry and the Bell County Public Health Director Teresa Hunter. These ordinances require food service workers to be vaccinated for Hepatitis A, and they urged the Bell County Fiscal Court to pass a similar ordinance in order to slow the spread of the disease.

A grant has assisted the Bell County Health Department in providing free vaccines.

“We’ve got enough that if the ordinance was passed we would be able to cover it,” Curry said. “Private insurance will cover it at no cost to the patient.”

According to minute notes, Judge-Executive Albey Brock asked how much the vaccine cost in case the grant was not renewed in the future. He was told each vaccine costs about $55.

“If we pass a local law, it keeps going on. Five years from now a restaurant worker would have to get the shot as well,” he said. “We’re talking one in five food service folks are potential drug users. Odds are they’re not going to have insurance.”

The ordinance would define food service worker as any person, business or entity engaged in the handling of raw meat and vegetables and/or preparation and service of food and drink to be consumed by the public. That would include restaurants, grocery meat and produce departments, school cafeterias, nursing home kitchens, jails, detention centers and other similar jobs.

Brock asked Hunter if she thought the ordinance was something that the court should pass.

“I don’t want us to be Boyd County or Greenup County. I want to get ahead of this,” she said. “I think we should as a county responsibly. Look, when you’re number six on a list of counties in the nation that are most vulnerable to an outbreak, you need to be serious about it.”

No action was taken by the Fiscal Court at Tuesday’s meeting.

The Pineville Sun contributed to information in this story.