Alarming headlines like these are a stark reminder of the need for an international focus on this preventable disease for World Hepatitis Day.
We may be familiar with many of the bacterial causes of foodborne illnesses, such as Salmonella, Listeria and E.Coli - but Hepatitis A is one of the top viral causes of foodborne illness. As the food industry, we have an obligation to do everything we can to prevent such incidents.
Hepatitis A is one of five human hepatitis viruses (hepatitis A, B, C, D, and E) that primarily infect the liver and cause illness.
Hepatitis A is a contagious disease that spreads from person-to-person through faecal-oral contact, via contaminated food or water or through direct contact with an infectious person.
Food contaminated with the virus is a common vehicle transmitting hepatitis A. The food handler is most often responsible for contaminating the food, although he or she is generally not ill at the time of food preparation because the infectious stage of the disease is during the two weeks before illness begins.
The incubation period of hepatitis A is usually 14–28 days. Many children and most adults will experience the sudden onset of flu-like symptoms – not the typical symptoms we would associate with food “poisoning”. After a day or two of muscle aches, headache, loss of appetite, abdominal discomfort, fever and overall weakness, jaundice sets in. When jaundice sets in, the initial symptoms begin to subside.
In general, the illness lasts from 10 days to three weeks. Relapse is possible, and although more common in children, it does also occur in adults. In some cases, it can take months for people to be fit enough to resume normal life, and the impact on businesses from loss of productivity can be considerable.
There are blood tests widely available to accurately diagnose hepatitis A. There is no specific treatment other than treating the general symptoms being experienced, avoiding alcohol, and ensuring sufficient hydration. Bed rest is also recommended.
Hepatitis A vaccine is the best protection from hepatitis A infection and food handlers should be vaccinated.
Other key practices that can help prevent infection are:
excluding sick food-handlers from work
enforcing proper handwashing practices
cooking foods to a core temperature of 85 degrees (as this inactivates the virus)