Molecular epidemiology and case-control approaches for management of an outbreak of hepatitis A in Liguria, Italy


Introduction and methods. Hepatitis A remains an important public health problem in low endemicity areas, because of the social and economic high burden of cyclical outbreaks. In this study we described an outbreak of HAV infection occurred in the city of Genoa and in its proximity and the viral circulation in the post-epidemic period. In order to identify risk factors associated to the illness and to determine the source of infection and the dynamics of virus evolution, we conducted an epidemiological and molecular investigation by a case-control study and by sequence analysis of high variable regions of the genome. Results. From May to October 2005, 58 HAV hepatitis cases were notified. The case-control study showed that beach establishment attending is strongly associated with HAV hepatitis (OR = 24.5, p-value inf. 0.01), at multivariate analysis. The profile of epidemic curve, the clinical onset of primary cases who occurred in few weeks and the geographic distribution of cases clearly indicated a common exposure to a point source: the outbreak can be probably associated with a contaminated food product dispensed in the affected area. The outbreak has been mainly caused by a single variant, confirming the common exposure to a point source; this variant previously circulated within homosexual man (MSM) network in Northern Europe. During the outbreak and in the following months, different variants originating from Southeast Asia, Southern America and Northern Africa, have co-circulated: all these cases were related to international travel and none of these had determined secondary cases. Discussion. The epidemiological picture of hepatitis A in Liguria is characterized by a wide heterogeneity of circulating HAV strains. This pattern could be associated with the increase of imported cases and transmission within network of persons with similar risk factors. Molecular approach coupled to descriptive and analytical epidemiological studies appeared un-replaceable tools for management and control of HAV outbreaks, because of their capacity to recognize infection origin, transmission patterns and dynamics of virus evolution.