Editorial: Everyone plays role in driving out hepatitis A
It was good to learn last week that the outbreak of hepatitis A that has plagued West Virginia over the last several months appears to be leveling off in many parts of the state.
However, that doesn’t mean health officials and the general populace can rest easy. Continued diligence in personal hygiene habits and a continued increase in obtaining vaccinations to help ward off the disease remain necessary if the threat is be lessened further.
Two West Virginia counties that have seen the most hepatitis A cases - Kanawha with 644 confirmed cases and Cabell with 216- have noticed a drop in the number of new incidents of the disease in recent weeks.
Dr. Michael Kilkenny, physician director at the Cabell-Huntington Health Department, told The Herald-Dispatch that the epidemic seems to have peaked in July and has gradually declined since that time. But he cautioned that the county is still seeing more cases than is normal, especially considering Cabell had not had a diagnosed case in the five years prior to this year’s outbreak. At the outbreak’s peak, the county averaged 20 new cases per week. The decline in Kanawha County has not been as pronounced as in Cabell.
Both Kilkenny and Allison Adler, communications director for the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources, both warn that the outbreak is far from over and in fact could regain its steam. The state has averaged about 70 new cases a week for the past two months, and Adler said cases are being identified in new counties each week. She speculated that a widespread decline in new cases across the state may not occur for nine more months and noted that in other states outbreaks have lasted for up to two years.
So far, the outbreak has contributed to two deaths in the Mountain State.
To keep the outbreak on the downward trend, it behooves all of us to be diligent going forward. 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. Hepatitis A usually spreads when a person unknowingly ingests the virus from objects, food or drinks contaminated by small, undetected amounts of stool from an infected person.
To prevent contracting the disease, members of the community can take critical steps. One is to thoroughly wash their hands with soap and hot water after using the toilet and before handling food. The other is to get hepatitis A vaccinations if they have not done so already. Two doses of the vaccination are recommended, with the second dose to be received six months after the first dose.
If we all keep these steps in mind, chances increase that the outbreak can be minimized further.