Roanoke City medical leaders working to mitigate Hepatitis A outbreak

Published: Mar. 7, 2022 at 11:18 PM EST
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ROANOKE, Va. (WDBJ) - Hepatitis A a disease that spreads quickly and through many means.

The cases for 2022 are alarming, just three months into the year.

“Historically we’ve seen 2-5 cases of Hepatitis A per year and generally those have been sporadic cases,” said Dr. Cynthia Morrow, the health district director for the Roanoke City and Alleghany Health District.

The cases this year are anything but sporadic, and the current count of 31 people infected has nothing to do with the Famous Anthony’s outbreak that started late last year. Most of the cases, however, do have something in common.

“The majority of our cases, about 80 percent, are identified in individuals who use injection drugs,” said Morrow.

That’s where Lisa Via comes in. She’s the manager of the Drop-In Center North and she sees injection drug users daily.

“We have focused on the education on Hep A for the injection drug community,” said Via.

Her program, which focuses on harm reduction and offers a free needle exchange, has jumped from 460 participants to almost 650 in just over 3 months.

Via says the Hep A outbreak started in January. The exact cause is unknown, but health officials do know how it spreads and why. “Some people who use injection drugs may also be un-housed so they may not have access to some of the things that we take for granted in terms of things like hand hygiene, sinks and proper places to go to the bathroom,” said Morrow.

According to Morrow, preventing Hep A is really just as simple as washing your hands. It’s also why you should care about this outbreak, as those infected can spread it through food preparation and everyday things you touch.

“It’s kinda, again, a whole community project that we’re working on. Everyone focused on Famous Anthony’s because it was upfront, but the health department let us know it was injection drug users, boots on the ground immediately, started with the education behind it,” said Via.

That education includes opportunities to get vaccinated, one of the other main defenses against the disease.

These vaccines are free and Via says a few dozen folks have already rolled up their sleeves.

“You know the grassroots formation of harm reduction is meeting people where they are, so we meet people every week where they are. The Health Department in doing these clinics is meeting people where they are, they have offered these services that our clients need and don’t always get the services for a lot of reasons,” said Via.

Via and Morrow hope to see a shift in numbers in the next few weeks.

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