Local health care providers are worried that a requirement for all students to have hepatitis A immunization to attend school next year could overwhelm medical facilities and cost local school districts thousands of dollars if parents put off the vaccinations.
Students who don’t get a hepatitis A immunization before August will not be allowed to attend school in Kentucky.
So far, Mountain Comprehensive Health Corporation of Whitesburg, which provides school nurses to the Letcher County schools, has seen only about a dozen students for the immunizations, even though it sent notices to all students.
“What we’re seeing right now, if it doesn’t pick up before school time, we’re going to have a hard time getting everybody in,” MCHC CEO Mike Caudill said.
An outbreak of hepatitis A in Kentucky and Indiana as well as several northern and western states led to the requirement for the vaccine. Hepatitis A is highly contagious and can be deadly.
In Kentucky, four people have died from hep A since November when the outbreak began, and 200 new cases were reported between March 1 and April 30. Nearly 450 cases have been reported since November. Symptoms include nausea, vomiting, fever, fatigue, loss of appetite and jaundice, or yellowing of the skin or eyes.
Like other strains of hepatitis, hep A can be passed through sex or dirty needles, but it is also a food borne illness. It is often passed by infected people who handle food without washing after they use the bathroom. In this country, it is often spread at restaurants or through contaminated produce.
The hep A shot is not the same as the hepatitis shots infants receive. Those are hepatitis B shots. Hepatitis C is already very common here, and is considered an indicator of a possible surge in HIV cases due to intravenous drug use.
Caudill said the hep A shots are highly restricted through the Centers for Disease Control, and are allocated to health centers based on previous use. If the clinics run out, it would take some time to get more and if parents wait, it could mean their children can’t enroll in school.
Letcher County School Superintendent Tony Sergent said the schools have had issues before with some parents waiting until the last minute to get their kids vaccinated.
“It’ll be tough for us to get that done, but we’ll have to keep contacting parents and keep contacting them,” Sergent said.
Caudill said his concern is the number of students who have to have the shots. Previously, students were required to have certain batteries of shots prior to attending school for the first time, and prior to entering sixth grade. While those batteries of shots might mean a few hundred students, all students have to have the hep A vaccine before entering school in August. Letcher County had about 2,979 students at the beginning of this month. Jenkins Independent Schools had 469 students, according to the last available statistics. The Jenkins superintendent and director of pupil personnel could not be reached for this story.