Kentucky’s Hepatitis-A Epidemic: Could We Have Done Better?

A society is only as healthy as the sickest individual within it.

Kentucky is in the middle of, and hopefully emerging from a major epidemic of Viral Hepatitis-A (Hep-A).  Hepatitis-B and Hepatitis-C, are caused by different viruses and commonly result in more serious chronic liver disease.  Classically, the spread of Hep-A is attributed to contamination and ingestion of food or water by the feces of infected persons or related poor hygiene practices.  Nonetheless, illicit drug use appears to be the major risk factor  in Kentucky’s current outbreak.  Hep-A is rarely fatal to otherwise healthy people but can cause debilitating symptoms. It can be fatal however, especially to individuals with preexisting liver disease such as alcoholic hepatitis or other forms of viral hepatitis. It is not clear when the first cases of the current outbreak began to emerge, but in the 21 months between Aug 1, 2017 and Feb 23, 2019; some 4229 presumed or suspected cases of Hep-A have been reported, including 2036 hospitalizations and 43 deaths. This can be compared to only 9 reported cases in all of 2016! Our current outbreak is the most severe in the nation. Concern has been expressed that, compared to the aggressive and successful response by the Board of Health of Jefferson County, that the best advice from experienced state public health experts within Kentucky’s Public Health Department in Frankfort was ignored allowing the statewide epidemic to expand and be prolonged. My independent analysis of available data supports this criticism. In my opinion, the appointment of an inexperienced public health commissioner by the Bevin administration– probably for political and ideological reasons– likely played a significant role in what occurred. Kentucky remains in the middle of upsurges of Hepatitis B and C. All three varieties of viral hepatitis have roots in poverty, substance abuse, exclusion from healthcare systems, despair, and other non-medical fellow-travelers that will be difficult to fix. It is therefore important that the current responses to the Hepatitis-A epidemic be independently reviewed so that we may be better prepared for the next time– which will surely come. Continue reading “Kentucky’s Hepatitis-A Epidemic: Could We Have Done Better?”