The outbreak of hepatitis A has caused considerable concern in the Tri-State over the last few months, as it should. About 1,000 cases have been reported in West Virginia, meaning the state has struggled with one of the largest reported outbreaks of the disease in U.S. history, according to Scientific American magazine.
More than half of those cases have required hospitalization, and two deaths linked to the disease have been reported by state agencies.
County health departments have mobilized in hard-hit counties, including Kanawha, Putnam and Cabell, and the state epidemiologist and additional staff from the state Department of Health and Human Resources were stationed at the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department beginning in May. Kanawha County has had the most reported cases in the state, with more than 500.
Just last week, more help arrived to try to counter the outbreak.
Six national epidemiological experts from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are now stationed in West Virginia to help manage the region’s hepatitis A outbreak, the DHHR said last week. The experts from the CDC’s National Center for HIV, Viral Hepatitis, STD and TB Prevention will provide technical assistance mostly in Kanawha and Putnam counties. The CDC will assist in data management and case investigations as health officials work to stem the spread of hepatitis A.
The CDC assistance was requested by the state, at the direction of Gov. Jim Justice. Whether a request was necessary to bring on board the CDC is unclear, but some may wonder why the federal agency didn’t get involved more quickly if the assistance is considered appropriate now. If the CDC staff can make a difference in quelling the outbreak, and we hope it can, their help would have been welcomed much sooner.
The prevalence of hepatitis A in the Mountain State, and in Kentucky, too, no doubt is in part linked to the opioid epidemic, which also has hit the region hard. Nearly 80 percent of the people who have contracted the disease in West Virginia have a history of illicit drug use, Gupta said.
That’s just another indication that efforts to combat illicit drug use should remain a top priority for authorities and health agencies at all levels of government. A concerted effort to contain and diminish the spread of hepatitis A - a likely byproduct of that drug use - also must continue unabated.
Members of the public can do their part, too. Hepatitis A is a viral disease of the liver and is spread from person to person by the “fecal-oral” route, often by inadequate hand-washing after using the toilet or changing diapers. Thorough hand-washing with soap and hot water after using the toilet and before handling food is the best precaution.