Gaston County Hepatitis A outbreak grows to more than 120 cases in 2021

Updated: Jun. 10, 2021 at 2:44 PM EDT
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GASTON COUNTY, N.C. (WBTV) - Gaston County is reporting more than 120 Hepatitis A cases in 2021 after there were fewer than 40 cases in the past three years.

From 2018 to 2020, the county says there were only 33 cases of Hepatitis A reported.

Gaston County has seen dramatic increases in local cases of Hepatitis A related to an ongoing outbreak that has impacted the entire state, most significantly the Piedmont and Western regions.

In the first three months of 2021, the county had 70 documented cases. That number has now grown to 122 cases.

Cases have occurred primarily among three risk groups: (1) persons who use injection or non-injection drugs; (2) persons who are experiencing homelessness; and (3) men who have sex with men.

The county says they have had two cases of individuals testing positive for Hepatitis A whose job duties included food-handling.

Officials say these cases were unrelated and isolated, but carefully investigated because of potential spread through contaminated food.

Through the investigation, health leaders say they identified no workplace contacts and based on state definitions deemed this very low risk due to appropriate protective measures being taken in the workplace and lack of symptoms at work.

That is why there was not a public notification unlike previous cases/situations where officials were concerned about potential public exposures and alerted the public to assist with contact tracing.

“Neither of these individuals worked in a restaurant. If we had an outbreak in a restaurant, the Public Health department would notify the public about dates where there could have been a possible exposure. We apologize for any confusion,” a press release read.

Hepatitis A is a contagious, vaccine-preventable liver infection that can range from a mild illness lasting a few weeks to severe illness lasting several months. Symptoms include fever, fatigue, nausea, loss of appetite and stomach pain.

The virus is usually transmitted through food or water that has been contaminated with undetectable amounts of feces from a contagious person, such as when food is prepared with unwashed hands.

Hepatitis A can be prevented by a safe and effective vaccine. If you are in one of the risk groups described (a person experiencing homelessness, a person who uses injection or non-injection drugs, or a man who has sex with men) or if you had contact with someone with Hepatitis A, contact your health care provider or the health department about receiving a vaccine.

Additionally, always wash your hands with soap and water after going to the bathroom, after changing diapers, and before preparing meals for yourself and others.

“We’ve really never seen anything like this,” shared Ellen Wright, Communicable Disease Supervisor for the Gaston County Health Department. “The case numbers are the highest we’ve seen and continue to climb. While our homeless population, incarcerated individuals and those using drugs are the most impacted right now, it only takes one person working in a restaurant or other public-facing industry to cause a large-scale community outbreak. We have to do everything we can to get high-risk individuals vaccinated so we can prevent the spread.”

For more information about Hepatitis or to find out how to get vaccinated, contact our Communicable Disease nurses at 704-853-5002 or 704-853-5141.

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