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KY Takes Team Approach to Curb Hepatitis-A Outbreak

More than 4,000 cases of hepatitis-A have been reported in Kentucky since 2017. (Adobe Stock)
More than 4,000 cases of hepatitis-A have been reported in Kentucky since 2017. (Adobe Stock)
July 24, 2019

FRANKFORT, Ky. - The Kentucky Department of Public Health's "Strike Team" of nurses is offering hepatitis-A vaccines at county jails and other locations across the state. The effort comes as Kentucky's hepatitis-A outbreak has become the deadliest in the country, with a death of toll of 58.

In some rural communities, said Dr. Jeff Howard, Department of Public Health commissioner, more than 80% of patients with hepatitis-A also report substance abuse. He said reaching at-risk populations has been particularly challenging.

"And what we realized is that getting nursing staff from the health department to go to the jails was an obstacle because, over time, our health departments have become so lean, especially in the clinical realm, they often didn't have expendable staff," he said. "We developed this nurse vaccination team - 'Strike Team,' as it's been called - to be able to go out and fill that need throughout the community."

Since April, Howard said, the strike team has provided more than 2,000 hepatitis-A vaccinations across the Commonwealth. The outbreak began in Jefferson County in 2017. Since then, more than 4,000 cases in nearly all of Kentucky's counties have been reported.

Howard said people who are homeless also are more likely to contract hepatitis-A, so the Department of Public Health is working with local homeless shelters to offer the vaccine onsite.

"What we realized early on, as it pertains to the hepatitis-A outbreak, is that there were really two populations primarily at risk in Kentucky," he said. "One is those with substance abuse disorder, and two, those that are homeless. The primary driver appears to be substance-use disorder."

Hepatitis-A is a highly contagious liver infection that can be transmitted through person-to-person contact. More than $4 million in state and federal funding has been allocated to combat the outbreak.

Nadia Ramlagan, Public News Service - KY