UPDATED: Thunder Over Louisville gets hepatitis A precautions

Hand washing is one way to prevent hepatitis A. | Creative Commons

Health officials in Louisville don’t want hepatitis A to spoil the disco-themed fireworks fun this weekend at Thunder Over Louisville.

Steps are being taken to keep Thunder-goers safe from the contagious illness that’s sickened hundreds of people around the state and that has prompted the state’s acting public health commissioner to issue a statement saying it’s safe to come to Kentucky.

“The CDC, the country’s foremost expert body in outbreak response, has NOT levied ANY travel restrictions nor made ANY recommendations for people to get vaccinated prior to traveling to a state with an active hepatitis outbreak,” Dr. Jeffrey Howard wrote in a statement Friday. “Still, some misleading information has raised concerns about travel to Kentucky and even the Derby. Let me say that it IS safe to travel to Kentucky and it IS safe to attend the Kentucky Derby.”

The statement noted that there have been 352 cases statewide, as of April 14, and three deaths. Citing privacy concerns Friday, the state Cabinet for Health and Family Services would not release where those deaths occurred, although it’s previously been reported that one occurred in Louisville.

People who plan to attend Thunder Over Louisville are encouraged to keep their hands clean by using hand-washing stations that will be available throughout the event area near portable toilets, according to the Louisville Metro Department of Public Health and Wellness.

The number of hand-washing stations has been tripled, and signs will be posted to encourage people to clean their hands “to protect against and prevent the spread of” the illness, the department notes.

“The best ways to prevent hepatitis A infection are to get vaccinated and to practice good hand washing,” said Dr. Lori Caloia, medical director of the health department. “Washing your hands thoroughly and often with warm water and soap, especially before preparing meals or eating, after using the bathroom or changing a diaper is a proven way to prevent the spread of diseases. Hand sanitizer is not as effective as hand washing against hepatitis A.”

As is customary, the department is inspecting all food vendors at Thunder and Derby events to make sure safe food handling is taking place.

Other precautions include asking vendors coming into town to immunize their workers against hepatitis A, just as many local restaurants are doing, the health department noted.

The Kentucky Department for Public Health issued an advisory Monday, encouraging residents of a half-dozen counties, including Jefferson and Bullitt, to get vaccinated because of an outbreak of acute hepatitis.

Louisville has had the most cases — more than 200 — mostly among the homeless and people who use drugs. But sometimes people who come down with hepatitis A do not have risk factors, according to the state.

Hepatitis A has cropped up among workers at some area Kroger stores as well as some restaurants, such as Applebee’s at 4717 Dixie Highway.

But Howard stressed that there have been no Kentucky cases associated with contamination from a food worker and the risk of contracting the disease from an infected food worker is low.

In his statement, Howard also said that Kentucky’s response has been praised by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as the “gold standard” and reiterated that “the risk of contracting the illness is greatest in those with risk factors for the disease, which in our outbreak include homelessness and drug abuse.”

This story has been updated with comments from Dr. Jeffrey Howard, acting commissioner of the state Department for Public Health.