Public health officials in Kentucky are responding agressively to a Hepatitis A outbreak, and Dr. Jeffrey Howard, acting director of the state health department issued a statement Friday saying it’s still safe to travel to Kentucky.

Howard mentioned the May 5 Kentucky Derby and urged people to come on down to Churchill Downs.

“As you probably know, a small number of counties in our state are dealing with a Hepatitis A outbreak,” Howard said.

“At the Department for Public Health we are aggressively responding to the situation. In fact, while working with the Centers for Disease Control, or CDC, on this issue, they’ve called our response the ‘gold standard.’ ”

The CDC, he noted, has not recommended that people planning to travel to Kentucky get vaccinated first.

“Still, some misleading information has raised concerns about travel to Kentucky and even the Derby,” Howard said. “Let me say that it is safe to travel to Kentucky and it is safe to attend the Kentucky Derby.”

 The highly contagious virus can easily contaminate foods, beverages, kitchen surfaces, and food preparation and serving utensils when an infected person touches them. A number of restaurant and foodservice employees in Kentucky and other states have tested positive, which potentially exposed everyone who ate or drank anything from those establishments. Hepatitis A vaccinations are not mandatory for foodservice workers. Infected people are usually contagious before the Hepatitis A virus symptoms develop.

Kentucky has had 352 cases associated with the break, including 246 people who required hospitalization and three who died since the outbreak was declared in November. The risk of contracting Hepatitis A is greatest in those in high-risk groups, which include homeless people and substance abusers.

Signs and symptoms of Hepatitis A include yellowing of the skin or eyes, dark-colored urine, fatigue, abdominal pain, loss of appetite, nausea, diarrhea and fever. Microscopic amounts of the virus are found in the stool of people infected with hepatitis A and is typically foodborne or spread through person-to-person contact.

While there are no travel restrictions, the CDC does recommend vaccination for children, people with risk factors, and those living in an outbreak area who wish to be protected. Kentucky’s vaccine recommendations are in compliance with these CDC recommendations, Howard said.

The Kentucky Health Department is recommending vaccination for children older than 1 and for and adult residents of Jefferson, Bullitt, Hardin, Greenup, Carter and Boyd counties.

Although the majority of the outbreak cases in Kentucky, as well as several other states involved in the outbreak, are among homeless people or substance abusers, the Kentucky health alert reported at least 30 percent of the victims in the state are nor in any of the high-risk groups.

The Hepatitis A virus is primarily spread through fecal-oral transmission. The virus can also be spread by close personal contact or sexual contact with someone who has Hepatitis A. As long as people who have not been vaccinated continue to come in contact with contaminated environments or have at-risk activities, the virus will continue to spread, Howard said in the statement.

“We have to increase vaccination rates and adherence to good hand hygiene practices to reduce the spread,” according to his statement.

Howard said the CDC has advised that similar outbreaks usually peak after six to eight  months.

Nationwide, the outbreak has sickened 1,200 people, killing more than 40.

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