Rumors spread faster than hepatitis A virus

Health officials "saturate" area with vaccine

By Jane Hill

Daily Journal

NEW ALBANY - Controlling the rumors surrounding a recent outbreak of hepatitis A in New Albany has been almost as difficult as getting a handle on the city's mini-epidemic, according to health officials.

Thursday was the final day of a state-sponsored free vaccination clinic for people in danger of contracting the virus, except for follow-up vaccinations for those who have received their first inoculation, said Dr. Earl Mahaffey, Regional Health Officer with the Mississippi Department of Health.

People living in a diamond-shaped area of the city bordered by U.S. Highway 78, Mississippi Highway 15, Bankhead Street and Central Avenue have been urged in recent days to come to the Union County Health Department and to be vaccinated against the virus.

Hepatitis A is a relatively mild form of hepatitis compared to its far more dangerous cousin, hepatitis B, which can cause severe liver damage, Mahaffey said. Still, hepatitis A can pose a danger to adults who have heart, lung or liver disease or to alcoholics who have cirrhosis of the liver.

Mahaffey said he and other health officials are encouraged by the strong turnout for the vaccinations and by the fact that no new cases of the virus have been confirmed for about two weeks. The average incubation period is two weeks, he said.

A total of 19 cases were confirmed in New Albany and another two cases have been confirmed in Lee County, Mahaffey said. More than 700 vaccinations were given to New Albany residents by the time the vaccination program ended Thursday, he said.

Children under 18 must have a series of three shots: the first one, then a second in a month and then a third six months after the second shot. Adults need two shots: one and then a second within six months. Completion of the vaccination series is supposed to provide a person with lifelong immunity.

For those people not living in the vaccination target area, the Health Department will provide the hepatitis vaccinations for $40 per shot, Mahaffey said.

Rumors rampant

While public health officials have been gratified that New Albany residents are taking the call to receive vaccinations seriously, they are concerned about rumors as to the source of the small epidemic.

Speculation about the source has included almost every restaurant in New Albany and has hurt the business of many establishments, Mahaffey said.

The truth is the source of the infection was probably out-of-state, from someone who visited Memphis and contracted the virus there, said Dr. Mary Currier, state epidemiologist at the Mississippi Department of Health in Jackson.

"It was not a particular restaurant in New Albany," Currier said. "This outbreak was spread person-to-person, not from a restaurant."

Another rumor that health officials are refuting is that the source of the infection was the New Albany water system.

"It is most definitely not in the water," Currier said.

Mahaffey agreed. "We are approaching a case of mass hysteria here," he said. "We have been asked whether it is in the water system and I have heard every restaurant in town mentioned as a source. None of this is true. The outbreak has not been pinpointed to a particular source. I would discount all these rumors completely."

Prevention key

The key to preventing the spread of hepatitis A is very simple: Wash your hands thoroughly, particularly after using the bathroom, before handling any food or object that someone is likely to put in his mouth.

Hepatitis infection takes a "fecal-oral" route, Mahaffey said. When someone does not wash properly after coming into contact with fecal matter, such as using the restroom or changing a baby's diaper, the virus can be spread to any one who eats food prepared by that person.

At first, the hepatitis virus acts like a flu virus. Suffers complain of headaches, fever, nausea, loss of appetite, and sometimes abdominal pain and cramping. In children, the virus usually produces mild symptoms and runs its course in about two weeks. Adults can suffer more severe symptoms for a longer period, he said. Unlike its far more dangerous relative, however, hepatitis A has no chronic side effects, Mahaffey said.

A far more severe outbreak of hepatitis A occurred in Tunica County in November last year in which 37 cases were confirmed, Currier said. In that instance, the state also employed a vaccine "saturation" program, though on a larger scale. More than 2,900 Tunica County residents were vaccinated against the virus in that case, she said.

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