Folks all across America are getting caught off-guard by hepatitis A.
It turns out that patrons of Evansville, Indiana’s Lone Star Restaurant may have been at risk of hepatitis A between April 27 and May 3 after reports surfaced that a food handler there may have been infected. Local health officials have since been working with Indiana’s health department to investigate the matter and to make sure the risk is minimized.
Then, in August, lab tests confirmed that an employee of Tom’s Gyro in Pocatello, Idaho had hepatitis A. Fast-forward to just last month and you may have read about the bar worker in southwestern North Carolina found to be infected with the disease. In all cases, customers of the food establishments were alerted or notified for screening for possible exposure to the virus that causes hepatitis A.
Hepatitis A may not be as common in the United States as it is in third-world countries, but —as we can see—it has a nasty habit of cropping up when it’s least expected. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), an estimated 25,000 Americans were infected by the virus in 2007, a figure that CDC estimated to be far below the number of unreported cases.
Hepatitis is an inflammation of the liver. In most cases, it is caused by a viral infection, the most common type in the United States being hepatitis A. It is primarily transmitted through food or drink contaminated with fecal matter. (Ew, right?)
Infection with hepatitis A, according CDC, does not cause cirrhosis of the liver or develop into chronic hepatitis, which can lead to liver cancer. HAV usually goes away on its own, with no serious complications. Hepatitis A, however, can lead to acute liver failure and death in vulnerable individuals (such as those with weakened immune systems).
The primary methods for preventing hepatitis A infection are hygienic food handling and vaccination. The hepatitis vaccine is effective in minimizing the risk when it is administered within two weeks of the last instance of exposure. The best way to prevent infection following a suspected instance of contamination is to receive the vaccine proactively.
Careful and diligent hand washing prevents the spread of hepatitis A and is especially important after using the bathroom and before handling food and beverages. This means using soap and running water for a minimum of 20 seconds and being careful to include the backs of the hands, the wrists, in-between fingers and under fingernails. Restaurants and other food establishments, by employing only food handlers with food handlers permit and food safety training, can go a long way toward preventing foodborne illness outbreaks.
Most people who have a hepatitis A infection will have most, if not all, of the following symptoms: abdominal distress, diarrhea, loss of appetite, nausea and fever. About 70 percent of infected individuals will develop jaundice a few days after exhibiting the initial symptoms. Jaundice is a condition that causes the skin and the whites of the eyes to turn yellow. Infected children below age seven, however, are unlikely to exhibit symptoms.
Don’t let hepatitis A catch you by surprise. Be aware of your surroundings when you go out to eat. And if you work in the food service industry, make sure you’re getting the professional training you need to keep the public safe.