At last count, 89 people in seven states had contracted hepatitis A from consuming smoothies made with contaminated strawberries, public health officials report.
The outbreak began in Virginia in May, and has been traced to frozen strawberries used to make smoothies at Tropical Smoothie Cafe restaurants. Most cases have been confined to Virginia and nearby states, but some cases have since turned up as far away as Wisconsin and Oregon.
Tropical Smoothie Cafe said that it would remove all the contaminated strawberries from its restaurants by August 9, after being contacted by Virginia health officials. Because hepatitis A can take up to 50 days to manifest symptoms, however, officials are warning anyone who has eaten at these restaurants to remain alert for symptoms until the end of September.
Additionally, hepatitis A can be transmitted from person to person.
State health department blamed
According to the Virginia health department, the people infected range in age from 14 to 68. The first case occurred in early May, and new cases continue to be diagnosed. Nearly half of those diagnosed have been hospitalized.
The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are conducting an epidemiological investigation to better trace the origin and spread of the outbreak.
At least one of the people who was sickened has filed a lawsuit against Tropical Smoothie Cafe, asking for $100,000 in damages. Several other customers have joined together in a class-action lawsuit.
Virginia health officials have also come under fire, after it emerged that they waited 14 days after the first report of the outbreak before issuing a public warning.
“I think it’s important for the Virginia Department of Health and Tropical Smoothie Cafe to say why they didn’t alert the public sooner,” said Bill Marler, a food safety attorney representing some of those affected by the outbreak.
Virginia health department epidemiologist Diane Woolard, director the division of surveillance and investigation, said that the department waited “to determine with enough scientific certainty what the risk to the public was so we could understand the risk and communicate it accurately.” It took two weeks to answer certain questions such as whether the contaminated strawberries had been distributed to more than one restaurant chain, if other fruit might have played a role and whether the contamination extended beyond Virginia’s borders.
Wash your hands!
Because Hepatitis A is transmitted through the feces of infected individuals, health officials have emphasized the importance of hand washing for infected people and those spending time around them. Even a trace of bacteria can be passed either directly to another person, or can contaminate food prepared by an infected person.
Officials are urging everyone, and particularly those that might have come into contact with the contaminated berries, to monitor themselves for symptoms of hepatitis A. Common symptoms include jaundice, fever, loss of appetite, abdominal pain, vomiting, fatigue, light-colored stools and dark urine. People showing these symptoms should seek medical attention immediately.
Because hepatitis A is highly contagious, those infected should stay at home until they recover, in order to avoid spreading the illness. It is also important to note that people are contagious for two weeks before they start showing symptoms.
Of course, health officials are also using the outbreak as an excuse to try and push vaccination against hepatitis A.
But, while hepatitis A is highly contagious and has a tendency to cause large outbreaks, the disease is rarely serious and is one of the less severe forms of the hepatitis virus, said infectious disease specialist Dr. Richard Bowen of Colorado State University. In contrast, he said, hepatitis B is a “global health problem.”
Thus, although hepatitis A does infect liver cells and cause liver dysfunction, it rarely causes liver failure as some other forms of hepatitis do.
Sources for this article include: