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December 27, 1999

Buncombe County Health Officials Warn Of Hepatitis Threat at La Paz Restaurant

Asheville, NC (SafetyAlerts) - The Buncombe County Health Center announced today that two cases of hepatitis A have been confirmed. One of the cases poses a threat to the public due to food handling, which occurred when the case was potentially contagious. The food handler, confirmed to have hepatitis A, prepares and serves food at La Paz, a local restaurant. Individuals who may have eaten food from La Paz on December 13 – 21, 1999, may have been exposed to the hepatitis A virus and should get Immune globulin.

Contacting these individuals is critical because Immune globulin, a serum which can prevent or reduce symptoms of hepatitis A, must be given within two weeks after possible exposure" states George Bond, Health Director. The Health Center staff have been in contact with La Paz to maximize efforts to contact patrons who ate food during Dec. 13 –21, 1999. "Our first priority is to contact individuals who ate food from La Paz on Dec. 13th because they must receive Immune globulin by Monday, Dec. 27th.

The Health Center, normally closed due to the holidays, will open at 1:00 pm – 4:00 pm on Monday, December 27th to make it possible to offer the serum, especially for those who may have been exposed on December 13th. "We are taking every possible precaution to prevent a major outbreak," says Bond.

Bond said, "La Paz has consistently maintained a Grade ‘A’ rating, which indicates a high level of sanitation and food handling techniques. This is an important opportunity to inform all food establishments that this can happen anywhere, at any time". Bond also recommends that food handlers get a hepatitis A vaccination, which would greatly reduce the incidence of this type of outbreak.

Hepatitis A is an infection of the liver caused by the virus. The virus is found in the stool of persons with hepatitis A. The virus is usually spread through fecal-oral contact or through contaminated food and water. For example, you can get hepatitis A from an infected child if you don’t wash your hands after changing a diaper or from an infected person if they don’t wash their hands after going to the bathroom. If the fecal contaminant somehow gets on food –for example, if a contaminated cook handles food in a restaurant – the disease can spread quickly.

Symptoms of hepatitis A include flu-like symptoms, such as fever, chills, and a general feeling of weakness. Other symptoms include weight loss, nausea, jaundice (yellowing of the eyes and skin), dark urine, light-colored stools, and abdominal pain. Symptoms appear within 15 –50 days, usually within 30 days, of exposure.

Although hepatitis A does not result in chronic infection, complete recovery from hepatitis A can be slow. In children, especially in those younger than 6 years of age, there are often no symptoms. Adult patients may be ill for three to four weeks, and full recovery can take longer.

"The spread of hepatitis A is easily prevented when individuals follow proper preventive measures," say Dr. Martha Salyers, Medical Director at Buncombe County Health Center. "Those measures include frequent hand washing in hot soapy water for at least 15 seconds, always before cooking and eating, and after each visit to the toilet. Dish washing should be done in a dishwasher or by hand at a high temperature. For persons with child care responsibilities, hand washing should be done after each diaper change," says Salyers. She also adds that persons using injectable drugs should not share needles or equipment since hepatitis A as well as hepatitis B may be transmitted in this way.

As a result of the confirmed hepatitis A case the Buncombe County Health Center recommends:

  1. People who ate food from La Paz on December 13 – 21, 1999, should receive Immune globulin to prevent hepatitis A. Immune globulin must be given within 2 weeks of exposure.  Individuals should not wait to be tested. Preventive measures such as proper hand washing should be followed.
  2. Individuals who may have been exposed between December 4 – 12, 1999 may have been exposed but will not benefit from receiving Immune globulin. These individuals should watch for symptoms that may indicate hepatitis A and see their physician or the Health Center immediately if these develop.
  3. Physicians should report suspected cases of hepatitis A promptly. Contacts of suspected cases that receive Immune globulin within two weeks of exposure greatly reduce their chances of developing hepatitis A.
  4. All food service establishments and workers should emphasize use of proper food handling and hand washing procedures for all employees. BCHC recommends that all food handlers get the hepatitis A and B vaccinations.

For more information call the Buncombe County Health Center at 250-5214. Individuals can also contact their personal physician.

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