A back-to-school reminder in west Louisville. | Photo by Darla Carter

Louisville parents who haven’t gotten their children vaccinated against the hepatitis A virus still have time to begin the process before classes resume, according to the Jefferson County Public Schools.

State law now requires children to get hepatitis A vaccination — a series of two shots given six months apart — to ward off the contagious liver disease.

Unless there’s a qualifying exemption, such as being unable to get vaccinated due to a medical or religious reason, “students need to have a current immunization certificate on file within two weeks of starting school,” a JCPS spokesman, Daniel Kemp, said via email.

However, “with any vaccine that requires a series of doses, students are able to get a provisional certificate issued that keeps them in school until they get the next dose,” he said.

Hepatitis A has garnered much publicity in recent months because of a state and local outbreak and because of several food service workers being impacted. The ailment can be picked up from contaminated foods, beverages or other objects. It also can be spread through close contact with an infected person, such as during sex or while sharing drugs.

In children, “it is not something that we see very often,” said Dr. Becky Carothers, a pediatrician with Norton Children Medical Associates — Broadway. But “it seems to be more common now that we have an outbreak.”

This week, the statewide tally was at 969 cases, the highest number in the state’s history, according to the Kentucky Cabinet for Health and Family Services.

Public Health Commissioner Jeffrey Howard has said Kentucky’s outbreak is the worst in the country, according to recent media reports in the Courier Journal and elsewhere.

At least 478 of the cases have been in Louisville, but the area is starting to see some light, according to the Louisville Metro Department of Public Health and Wellness.

“As cases are increasing in counties throughout the state, there is some indication that they may be trending downward in Jefferson County,” Public Health and Wellness spokesman Dave Langdon said via email. “In April, we were seeing about four new cases (3.9) per day. In June we are seeing about two (2.1).”

But people “should not get a false sense of security,” the local department noted. “Anyone can get hepatitis A. While the outbreak remains centered in those who use illicit drugs and who are homeless, about 10 percent of Louisville cases have no risk factors. We continue to encourage everyone to get vaccinated and to practice good hand washing.”

Dr. Becky Carothers | Courtesy of Norton Healthcare

When a young child under age 6 comes down with hepatitis A, “the majority of them don’t even have any symptoms,” Carothers said. But school-age children “can have fever, they can be tired, they can not want to eat, they can have stomach pain. With jaundice, their skin could turn yellow, or their urine could turn real dark, and they could have nausea or vomiting as well.”

To reduce the risk of getting hepatitis A, “we routinely give (shots) at 12 and 18 months for our regular series, but for the children that did not get the hepatitis A vaccine prior, we are trying to catch them up,” she said.

Sometimes, “kids have already been vaccinated (but) just don’t have an up-to-date vaccine record, so some of these children may just need to get an updated vaccine record to show the school their vaccine status,” Carothers said.

The purpose of getting two shots is to ensure lifelong immunity, she said. After that, “from our data, you will never need to get a booster.”

The vaccine is generally well-tolerated, but the patient may have soreness or redness where the shot was given, she said. Also, “you may feel a little bit tired or have a headache, but those usually are gone within a day or two.”

Darla Carter is a hometown girl who recently joined the staff of Insider Louisville to mostly cover health. She previously served as a longtime health and fitness writer for The Courier-Journal, where she also worked for the Metro, Neighborhoods and Features departments. Prior to that, the award-winning journalist wrote for newspapers elsewhere in Kentucky and Tennessee, covering a range of topics, from education to courts. She's a graduate of Western Kentucky University, where she studied journalism and philosophy, and is the proud mom of two young children.


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