People dining in South Carolina restaurants may have been exposed to the hepatitis A virus seven times in less than two months. Each case originated with employees who handle and prepare food at diners and fast-food places in the Midlands and Lowcountry.
The State has compiled five things you need to know:
What the heck is going on?
A nationwide outbreak of the virus hit in 2016, said Dr. Jonathan Knoche, a medical consultant for the bureau of communicable disease prevention and control with S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control. The number of cases in South Carolina began to spike in November 2018, and DHEC declared a hepatitis outbreak in May.
“We’re experiencing seven or eight times the number of cases that we normally experience in South Carolina since November,” Knoche said. “So that includes people who are working in restaurants and people who aren’t. It’s inevitable that you’re going to have cases coming up in different places.”
Can I take my family out to eat?
Health officials say yes. As long as employees follow proper hygiene protocols, such as washing their hands, the risk of spreading the virus in a restaurant setting is low, according to a DHEC spokesman.
But improper hand washing was recently cited in at least two Midlands restaurants, according to last month’s lowest health inspection ratings.
Health care providers and laboratories are required by law to notify state health departments when a patient tests positive for certain diseases, including hepatitis, Knoche said. When that happens, DHEC conducts an investigation — where did the patient receive the infection and who have they been in contact with?
DHEC then decides to release information about exposures on a case-by-case basis. If there is a risk of exposure and a threat to public health, DHEC will notify the public, according to a spokesman.
What is hepatitis A?
It’s a short-term viral inflammation of the liver. People who get the infection feel sick for several weeks — with symptoms like fever, stomach pain, nausea or vomiting, diarrhea and jaundice — but they usually recover completely. Many infected children and adults never develop symptoms, according to the DHEC website.
How does the hepatitis A infection spread?
In most cases, people get hepatitis A by person-to-person contact (having sex or other close contact) with someone who has the infection, or by eating or drinking food or water that has been contaminated by an infected person, according to the DHEC website.
Health officials have identified certain people as high risk — drug users, homeless, currently and formerly incarcerated, and men who have sex with other men.
What is DHEC doing about this?
Health officials are going to these at-risk populations — homeless shelters, prisons and drug rehab shelters — and providing no-cost vaccines. Officials are also sending out notifications to the state’s 19,000 restaurants about the outbreak, and reinforcing the importance of maintaining sanitary standards and following hygiene protocol in the food service industry.
Do you have questions that we haven’t answered? Have you recently been infected with hepatitis A after eating in a South Carolina restaurant? Reach out to Cody Dulaney by phone at 803-771-8313, by email at email@example.com, or by Twitter @dulaneycd.