Some Hollywood celebrities are up in arms after having been notified of their exposure to hepatitis A through an infected bartender at a trendy New York City club. Those who come in contact with a known virus carrier may prevent infection if they’re vaccinated early. Hepatitis A causes less severe liver disease than its blood-bourne cousin, hepatitis C, but it’s still a formidable foe. (For more information about hepatitis A and its symptoms, check out this article.)
I interviewed Revolution Health consultant and world-renowned liver expert, Dr. Emmet Keeffe, about this outbreak:
Dr. Val: What is the likelihood that people could catch hepatitis A from an infected bartender?
Dr. Keeffe: The hepatitis A virus is transmitted between persons by the fecal-oral route (think unwashed hands after a bathroom break, or drinking water that has come in contact with human sewage). Also this particular virus is very hardy and can live on counter tops and surfaces outside the body for longer than many viruses. Because hepatitis A is found in very high concentrations in an infected persons’ stool, a tiny bit of stool on the hands actually contains large amounts of the virus and can therefore be quite infectious. Although previous outbreaks have primarily been associated with food handlers, there is no reason why a bartender might not also spread hepatitis A virus.
Dr. Val: Yuck. Would a vaccine be effective in preventing hepatitis A after someone’s already been exposed? How quickly after exposure should one get the vaccine?
Dr. Keeffe: The standard recommendation for individuals potentially exposed to hepatitis A is passive immunization using immune globulin administered within 2 weeks of exposure, which is 85% effective in protecting against illness. This is the recommendation for household or sexual exposure, but not generally recommended for “common source outbreaks” (like exposure to food handlers or bartenders), which are usually recognized only after they are well into their course. However, with early recognition, such as the NY case, immune globulin may make good sense. After hepatitis A vaccination, protective levels of antibodies to hepatitis A virus do not appear until 2-4 weeks after vaccination. Thus, active immunization with hepatitis A is used for preexposure prophyaxis, such as in international travelers to areas where hepatitis A is common, but not for postexposure prophylaxis.
Dr. Val: What is the hepatitis A vaccine exactly?
Dr. Keeffe: Hepatitis A vaccine is an injection, which is administered at baseline followed by a booster in 6 to 18 months. Two relatively similar and effective vaccines are licensed in the United States: Havrix and Vaqta.
Dr. Val: What should the bartender do if he has hepatitis A? Can he still work? When can he come back to work?
Dr. Keeffe: To protect the public, the bartender should not work until he has fully recovered. He is most infectious during the late incubation and early illness stage, when excretion of hepatitis A virus in feces is the highest.This post originally appeared on Dr. Val’s blog at RevolutionHealth.com.