Leaking septic tank likely source of hepatitis A virus in Hawkins County wells

Jeff Bobo • Jun 19, 2008 at 12:00 AM

MOORESBURG — State health officials believe two wells found recently to be infected with hepatitis A virus in the Slate Hill Road area in far west Hawkins County were contaminated after an outbreak of the highly contagious disease last month.

Late last month, the Tennessee Department of Health reported eight cases of hepatitis A in the community of Mooresburg, which is located on and near Cherokee Lake near the Grainger County line. As of Thursday, the number of cases was up to nine.

Northeast Regional Health Department Assistant Director Judy Holder said Thursday five wells in the area were tested by the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation, and two were found to contain the virus. The likely cause of well contamination is seepage from the septic tank of a person carrying the virus. The wells aren’t believed to be the original cause of the outbreak.

“One of the wells is at one of the sick persons’ home,” Holder said. “We still don’t know the source of the original cases. The message is to anyone who drinks well water who lives in the Slate Hill Road area — they need to boil their well water or put a purification system on their well to protect themselves.

“We’re thinking what happened is, one of the persons who had hepatitis A was on a septic tank, and then it leached into their well. Once it got into that well it got into the other well.”

The two wells are near each other and are located just west of County Line Road. The hepatitis A virus can live up to two months in water.

Late last month, the health department held several free hepatitis A vaccination clinics at the Slate Hill Baptist Church, during which 1,500 people were vaccinated. Holder said anyone who fears they may have been exposed to the virus is advised to call the Hawkins County Health Department at 272-7641.

Hepatitis A illness causes fatigue, nausea, vomiting, fever, abdominal pain, and yellowing of the skin and eyes.

TDEC had previously tested several wells in the Slate Hill Road area for E. coli bacteria at the request of the Northeast Regional Health Department. Those tests did not indicate the presence of E. coli in the wells.

“These septic tanks were just overloaded with hepatitis A virus, and what we’ve been told by the geologists is that because of the terrain in Northeast Tennessee, some leakage from septic tanks is normal,” said Jamie Swift, the registered nurse in charge of communicable diseases at the Northeast Regional Health Department. “It’s not that these people had problems with their septic tank, and we’re not trying to blame anybody. But what was abnormal was we had so much hepatitis A in that environment.

“We had an outbreak on nine cases, and those people were spreading virus, so we knew that whole area was going to be overloaded with hepatitis A virus. It was leaking out of septic systems, and that’s what contaminated the water source.”

Although it is not possible to completely prevent contamination of groundwater by surface water in that type of terrain, officials say people who use private wells can take steps to prevent illness from contamination. Disinfection equipment can be installed in private wells, and water can be boiled.

“Some people are confused, and they think it’s only the people with the positive wells, but we’re trying to stress that it’s everyone with untreated well water in that defined area that we’re putting on a boil water alert,” Swift said. “Although the risk of infection is low, people who have not been vaccinated and who drink the water from private wells in this specific area should contact the Hawkins County Health Department in Rogersville to determine if vaccination or other treatment to prevent hepatitis A is needed.”

Health officials advise drinking bottled water, or disinfecting water before drinking. Disinfection can be done by boiling or by adding one-eighth teaspoon (eight drops) of regular unscented liquid household bleach to a gallon of water, stirring to mix, and letting it stand for 30 minutes before consumption.

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