What is Hepatitis A?
Hepatitis A is a dangerous foodborne illness. It’s one of six foodborne illnesses managers are required to report to their local regulatory authority because it’s highly contagious. It also has a history of outbreaks in California. One of the worst outbreaks of Hepatitis A in occurred in San Diego. In 2017, San Diego County declared a local health emergency in response to an outbreak of Hepatitis A. The outbreak included a whopping 592 cases and 20 deaths resulting from Hepatitis A infection.
Hepatitis A spreads easily through contact with people who have the disease. If an infected person handles food or drink, Hepatitis A can become foodborne and spread when the food or drink is consumed. Food workers in California may have contributed to the outbreak because they either didn’t recognize the symptoms of the disease or they didn’t follow FDA rules for sick food workers. All food workers need to know the signs of Hepatitis A—and what to do if they are infected—so they can take steps to keep from spreading the disease.
Symptoms of Hepatitis A
The Hepatitis A virus causes the classic symptoms of foodborne illness: nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea. Because it affects the liver, it also causes jaundice, or a yellowing of the skin and the whites of the eyes. In rare cases, Hepatitis A can cause permanent liver damage and even death.
When an individual is infected with Hepatitis A, the symptoms take around a month to appear. During this time, the infected individual is asymptomatic, meaning they don’t show symptoms. When the symptoms of Hepatitis A begin, most people feel sick for a few weeks before they recover. Infected individuals can spread the disease whether they have symptoms or not.
Imagine if a food service employee came to work while they were in the asymptomatic stage of a Hepatitis A infection. They could prepare and serve food for weeks before they became symptomatic and aware of their infection. That’s a long time to be spreading a disease without realizing it!
How to Prevent Hepatitis A
What can California food workers do to avoid getting and spreading Hepatitis A? The first step is to complete the training for a California Food Handlers Card. A good course will cover the rules of personal hygiene, food preparation, and other food safety essentials. The following tips are especially helpful in the fight against Hepatitis A.
1. Wash Your Hands
Good hand hygiene is the number one defense against foodborne illnesses. This is especially true for Hepatitis A. The Hepatitis A virus is transferred through the fecal-oral route. This means that the virus spreads when particles of stool get on someone’s hands and then get transferred to their mouth—usually through food. When people ingest stool that has the virus, they become infected. Wash your hands often, but give them special attention at work, before eating, and after using the restroom. Encourage those around you to do the same.
2. Stay Home If You Are Sick
Food workers must stay home from work if they have symptoms of a foodborne illness. If you have symptoms of vomiting, diarrhea, or a sore throat with a fever, call your manager and let them know.
The good news is that there is a vaccine for Hepatitis A, and it’s effective. The vaccine is recommended for children and for individuals who travel to places where Hepatitis A is common. Nearly 100% of the people who get two doses of the vaccine are immune to the disease for up to 20 years.
— Suzie Sandridge