Hepatitis A cases increase in Roanoke; health officials recommend getting vaccinated

Published: Jul. 18, 2022 at 6:31 PM EDT
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ROANOKE, Va. (WDBJ) - The number of hepatitis A cases in Roanoke sits at 76 since the beginning of January. Billy’s Restaurant in downtown Roanoke had the most recent outbreak Friday.

A waitress told WDBJ7 Monday the restaurant is offering all employees free hepatitis A vaccines after Friday’s outbreak. The Virginia Department of Health stated because the infected employee didn’t handle food, customers who ate at the restaurant aren’t at risk.

Billy’s is now the fourth restaurant in the Roanoke Health District to have a positive case of hepatitis A. The district health director for Roanoke City and Allegheny Health Districts explained the community is seeing an epidemic.

“We are definitely in an epidemic,” Cynthia Morrow said. “The term ‘outbreak’ is more specific when you can identify the specific time frames, locations and sub groups, so outbreaks are types of epidemics.”

Because hepatitis A is a fecal-orally transmitted disease that can spread through ingestion and close contact, a food safety lawyer explained how outbreaks at restaurants can be dangerous and deadly.

“It’s likely that in that one-week period of time that the employee is infectious, that restaurant may have thousands of patrons,” Bill Marler said.

In the fall of 2021, Famous Anthony’s had a Hepatitis A outbreak. That outbreak led to four deaths and 49 positive cases among customers.

The health department previously saw two to four cases of hepatitis A per year, but now cases have gone up to two to four cases per week. Morrow explained there is a direct correlation between the rise in drug usage and the rise in hepatitis A cases.

“Those who have had a history of drug abuse don’t always have access to proper hygiene like showers and soap,” Morrow said. “Unfortunately, once hepatitis A is embedded in the community, it is really challenging to get back to our base line.”

Dr. Anthony Baffoe-Bonnie, infectious disease clinician at Carilion Clinic explained the best way to protect yourself is by washing your hands often and getting vaccinated.

“If you stay in a community where there is high transmission of hepatitis A, and you have not received a hepatitis A vaccine, I think its a no-brainer to look into that with your primary doctor,” Dr. Baffoe-Bonnie said.

The health department is offering free doses of the hepatitis A vaccine Tuesday at the Roanoke Health Department at 1513 Williamson Road, NE Roanoke, 24012, from 11 a.m. until 2 p.m.

In a statement, the health department said the vaccination clinic is out of an abundance of caution from the rise in recent cases.

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