Hepatitis A

Chi Chi’s Restaurant — does that name sound familiar? (One of my favorite dishes there was the chicken chimichanga.)

In late October of 2003, a potential outbreak of Hepatitis A was reported by emergency room doctors treating patients in Beaver County. The health departments of Beaver County and Pennsylvania traced all of the cases back to the Chi Chi’s Restaurant at the Beaver Valley Mall. By November 7, 130 people had contracted Hepatitis A as a part of the outbreak. Two weeks later, the number of cases had risen to 240. By the end of the outbreak, more than  total number of people who contracted hepatitis A was over 650 people had contracted the illness, and four people died.

The Food and Drug Administration and the Center for Disease Control determined that the source of the outbreak of Hepatitis A came from raw or undercooked green onions originating from Mexico. More than 9,000 people who had eaten at Chi Chi’s during the period of the exposure received immunoglobin shots to reduce the risk of becoming ill from Hepatitis A.

THE VIRUS

So what is Hepatitis A? It’s a very serious disease caused by the Hepatitis A virus, which affects the liver. The virus is found in the stool of people with Hepatitis A.  It can be easily spread by close contact with people who have Hepatitis A, or from eating food or drinking water contaminated by stool which contains the virus. People who have Hepatitis A and do not wash their hands properly after using the bathroom can spread the virus.  Some people who do not feel sick or have symptoms can still spread the virus to others.

Flu-like symptoms, yellow color of the eyes and skin (jaundice), or dark-colored urine, along with severe abdominal pain and diarrhea, are all symptoms of Hepatitis A. Symptoms can last from weeks to months. For some people, hospitalization is needed.

THE VACCINE

Because of the serious nature of this virus and the illness it causes, Hepatitis A vaccine is recommended for children between 12 and 23 months of age. It’s a two-part vaccine, with the first one given at 12 months of age. and the second one 6 months later. The vaccine should also be given to people who will be traveling to countries such as Central or South America, Mexico, Asia (except Japan), Africa, and eastern Europe, all of which have a high prevalence of Hepatitis A.

Serious side effects from the Hepatitis A vaccine are rare. The most common side effects are soreness at the injection site, headache, loss of appetite and tiredness. These symptoms usually resolve within 24 to 48 hours. Getting the Hepatitis A vaccine is much safer than getting the disease.

For more information about the Hepatitis A vaccine see this Centers for Disease Control resource page.

Terri Bailey is a Certified Registered Nurse Practitioner.