Jefferson County Health Department plans educational session on outbreak of hepatitis A

STEUBENVILLE — The Jefferson County Health Department will hold an educational session on the outbreak of hepatitis A in the county at 11 a.m. Friday in the lecture hall at Eastern Gateway Community College.

Nicole Balakos, health department commissioner, said Jefferson County had 32 of those cases of hepatitis A as of Sept. 9, while Belmont County had seven, Harrison County had two, Carroll County had one and Columbiana County had three. Statewide, 3,307 cases had been reported with 82 of 88 counties reporting cases and 16 deaths attributed to hepatitis A, according to the state health department.

Hepatitis A is caused by a contagious virus that infects the liver, and can lead to serious liver problems, Balakos said. There is a vaccine that prevents the virus, she said. The virus spreads through the feces of people who have the virus. If a person with the virus doesn’t wash his or her hands after going to the bathroom, feces can transfer to objects, food, drinks or drugs, Balakos said. When these things are shared, other people can unknowingly swallow the virus. If a person who has the virus comes in close contact with others — like during sex — the virus can also spread, she said.

“Since Sept. 9, Jefferson County has added additional cases to the tally and we are gravely concerned for our residents,” Balakos said. “The at-risk population are particularly vulnerable based on the risk factors of drug use, recent incarceration, homelessness, men having sex with men and similar factors. However, once an individual is infected, the risk of transmission increases from lack of hygiene such as basic handwashing before preparing or serving food, prior to eating and after using the restroom or changing a diaper. This makes family members and others who are in close contact susceptible. It is critical that people understand that they must wash their hands. Alcohol-based sanitizers do not kill hepatitis A germs. Use soap and warm, running water and wash for at least 20 seconds.”

Two state health department officials, epidemiologist Brandi Taylor and immunologist Theresa Bonn, will be presenters at the educational session on Friday.

“This is the first lecture of this type being done in the state and is in response to our high rate of cases based on our population,” Balakos said.

“Through education and awareness, we are hoping to activate our community to institute best practices and awareness to assist us in stemming the spread.”

The session will include topics such as transmission and exposure of the virus, guidelines and recommendations for immunizations and tools and resources for healthcare professionals and food-service establishments, the county health department reported.

A person can have hepatitis A for up two weeks without feeling sick but during that time can spread the virus to others, Balakos said. Symptoms usually start two to six weeks after infection and last less than two months. Symptoms include fever, fatigue, loss of appetite, nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, dark urine, diarrhea, clay colored bowel movements and being jaundiced — yellowing of the skin and eyes.

County heath department officials reported staff members are working in the community to educate and vaccinate in an effort to control the increasing number of hepatitis A cases within the county.

The staff recently went to the Urban Mission dormitory on North Sixth Street to provide education and an opportunity for those who wish to receive vaccinations to do so on site.

Eight vaccinations were provided during that visit as well as an education session about the risk factors, current spread and symptoms for which to seek medical attention, Balakos said. Fifteen vaccinations were later provided at the Hutton House in Steubenville and other outreach locations have been contacted.

Deborah Bryan, homeless services director at Urban Mission Ministries said the organization was happy to offer this service to the guests of the dormitory, and invited the health department staff to return during the Urban Mission meal distributions and other times to seek any high-risk individuals in need of vaccinations. Bryan said she also posted the literature provided by Balakos and the health department nurses.

The health department staff will be offering vaccination opportunities for at-risk individuals at the health department, located on the sixth floor of the Towers, 500 Market St. Prior to receiving a vaccination, a risk assessment is conducted by the nurse to determine if vaccination is appropriate. Candidates for vaccination are encouraged to come to the health department between 8:30 a.m. and 10 a.m. on Tuesday through Friday, the health department reported.

Other times can be scheduled by calling (740) 283-8530.

Additional outreach nursing will continue to be done at locations where high-risk populations gather as the health department continues its mission to educate and vaccinate against hepatitis A, Balakos said.

“If someone is experiencing these symptoms, and thinks they may have been exposed, they should seek medical attention and identify to their healthcare provider the risk factors they may have experienced,” Balakos said.


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