AIKEN, SC (WFXG) - SC DHEC held a conference call Thursday with local media outlets to discuss the outbreak in Aiken County.
SC State Epidemiologist Dr. Linda Bell says hepatitis is caused by a virus that affects the liver and can cause nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, stomach pain, and yellow skin. While the vaccine can help prevent infection, there is no post-infection treatment. Dr. Bell goes on to say that the virus will normally run its course in about 2 weeks but can be severe is some people, especially if they have liver disease or problems with their immune system.
Dr. Bell says the risk of contracting the virus from a restaurant where an employee is infected is actually very low, as cooking food will kill the virus. And the risk of spreading directly from one person to another is low. The virus is shed in the stool of its host and is contracted by coming into close contact with an infected person or ingesting something they have contaminated, so poor hygienic practices is the main concern.
If someone is exposed to the virus, it can be anywhere from 2 weeks to nearly 2 months before they begin to show symptoms.
Dr. Bell says there is no direct connection between Aiken Brewing Company and City Billiards. It was two people, one at each restaurant that caused the exposures. The fact that the restaurants are so close to one another and these notices came out just 1 week apart are likely coincidental. However, there are more people in the community that have been identified as infected; 10 cases going back to November 2018. DHEC is seeing an unexpected number of cases in Aiken County and is being compared to large outbreaks in other states.
DHEC is recommending vaccinations for not just the people who may have been exposed, but the general population as a whole. If the vaccination is administered within 2 weeks of being exposed, it can prevent infection. Hepatitis A is on the recommended immunization schedules for children, so many are already protected. However Dr. Bell says most adults born after the 1980s did not receive the hepatitis A vaccine.
Dr. Bell emphasized that the general public should not worry about eating out at local restaurants. The risk of exposure to the hepatitis A virus is linked to specific food servers, not the restaurant as a whole. In fact, she says both Aiken Brewing Company and City Billiards have both been recently inspected by DHEC and received high scores.