Health officials say 'wash your hands,' hepatitis A cases on the rise

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KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WVLT) - Knox County health officials said a recent rise in hepatitis A cases has become a growing concern. Tennessee’s hepatitis A outbreak is connected to a large outbreak, spanning several states, that started in 2017.

"Hepatitis A, it's a viral infection. It's very contagious," Charity Menefee, Director of Communicable and Environmental Disease at the Knox County Health Department, said. "It's fecal oral transmission, so you get it different from what people think of hepatitis B and C, which is typically transmitted through blood and body fluids."

According to the Tennessee Department of Health, from December 1, 2017 to March 29, 2019, there have been 21 confirmed cases of hepatitis A in Knox County.

"It's not really clear why this epidemic started, but once it gets to a high level in these closely connected communities, it can really spread rapidly, and that's what we're seeing now," Dr. Mark Rasnake, an Infectious Diseases Physician at UT Medical Center, said.

Dr. Rasnake said since January 2019, they have seen an uptick of patients getting admitted to the hospital with hepatitis A. He said, so far, there have not been any deaths here in Knox County, but there have been several statewide.

"Several people in the state of Tennessee have died of hepatitis A in this outbreak, and Kentucky, who has been hit worse by this outbreak, has had multiple deaths. So far, we haven't seen anyone here at UT Hospital die during the outbreak, but it has been causing some deaths," Dr. Rasnake said.

The Knox County Health Department said the outbreak primarily affects those who use injection and non-injection drugs, like marijuana, heroin and methamphetamine, as well as those experiencing homelessnes.

"That again all goes back to typically hand washing and not either being able to wash your hands, or not being able to wash your hands and sharing things," Menefee said.

Transmission usually happens when a person who has the infection does not wash their hands after using the bathroom, and then touches food, a surface or another person's mouth. Symptoms can include vomiting, diarrhea, fever, fatigue, abdominal pain, jaundice and a loss of appetite. It can even be deadly.

Menefee said hepatitis A is preventable with a vaccine.

"We're just trying to do everything we can to combat it, and keep it from getting out of control in our area, and so we are encouraging everyone to get vaccinated, and washing your hands," Menefee said.