After interviewing dozens of people who were at the party, officials ruled out the possibility the source of the illness was a tap or kitchen faucet. However, they do not rule out a possible contamination from a home or community health department that does regular outreach to homeless people in the area. A team of researchers who work with families on housing issues, including those with a background in epidemiology, will conduct testing to determine whether the presence of the virus in the community is part of the reason for the infection. An outbreak of HIV could also lead to the outbreak of hepatitis.
A large group huddles near Red Onion Park at the Northside Station Tuesday afternoon following the release of hepatitis C disease information. (Photo by Bill Eichenseer)
Officials reported Thursday that the case in St. Louis is related to four other people, three of whom are HIV positive (one in Tennessee and the other four in North Carolina). In all, five people have been hospitalized and nine have contracted hepatitis C. One of the three in Ohio developed the disease outside of Ohio, and the others were either in the U.S. or traveling during this illness.
The outbreak in St. Louis and several other towns and counties is the largest case of hepatitis C to date in the USA or the world. In 2011, an outbreak occurred in the Los Angeles area that resulted in 1,600 cases and 8 deaths. Officials linked the outbreak because a person who had been in the outbreak and subsequently came down with that illness developed the virus.
According to the CDC, hepatitis C is a viral infection that is transmitted through blood products like blood thinners, vaccines, blood transfusions, bone marrow transplants, and even oral sex. One in 5 persons with the disease are carriers. Health department officials said those who contracted the infection were not infected before coming down with the virus and some people who also got the infection did not have the disease before.
CDC officials said the virus occurs naturally with no symptoms, and many people with the disease do not have any symptoms. The virus may linger in the human body, however, unless its carrier is exposed to it. “People with chronic hepatitis will be able to survive longer with the disease,” said Dr. David Geller , a physician at the St. Louis Regional Hospital and a researcher at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta. “If you have this disease on your body for twenty years, you are almost guaranteed to develop the disease. We think it is likely that the initial hepatitis C infection occurred within our community.”
Dr. David Geller talks about the hepatitis C virus at a news conference on Wednesday Jan. 6, 2009. (Photo by Bill Eichenseer)
Geller said that because people infected with the virus are in close proximity to other people with the disease, it can lead them to infect more people to infect others to spread the illness. In addition, infection can affect all parts of the body, and there’s no known cure for the disease.
Dr. Ewen Cameron , one of the American scientists working on the hepatitis C project in St. Louis, said that “we have known about the virus for some time, and we learned some of its biological characteristics, but we were not as sure of the genetic, cellular or virus processes involved.It was not until last year that we found evidence that something similar was going on.” Cameron said that the outbreak had prompted local officials to ask the CDC how to contain the virus. “These are the first cases in recent memory which have made some sort of connection to the water supply,” Cameron said. Although the disease has not been linked to human exposure to water in St. Louis, he said that the virus has caused an outbreak in that area’s Northside and the neighboring Jefferson Park .
“There is a possibility that the outbreak reflects a local spread of the virus to community residents.”
In August, the Ohio Department of Health issued a warning about the hepatitis C virus after eight people contracted the disease while in Columbus. The illnesses occurred between August and December, according to officials, and were all men who had sex with other men. Health officials traced the cases back to a woman who drank raw milk from a home with a contaminated cow . The infected woman was hospitalized with the disease , and tests of her blood showed she tested positive for the hepatitis C virus. She also tested positive for the hepatitis B virus , which is a virus less harmful to humans and animals with no symptoms.