U.S. Department of Agriculture
Food Safety and Inspection Service
Washington, DC 20250
WHAT IS HEPATITIS?
Hepatitis simply means "inflammation of the liver". Sufficient quantities of alcohol can cause "alcoholic hepatitis," and certain medications can cause "medication-related hepatitis".
More common, however, are infectious forms of hepatitis that can be transmitted from one person to another. There are five known types of infectious hepatitis. These are hepatitis A, B, C, D, and E. Of these, hepatitis A and B cause the vast majority of infectious hepatitis in the United States. And of these two types, hepatitis A outbreaks have been associated with food (including meat, poultry, and egg products) contaminated by infected food handlers. Because of its association with foodborne outbreaks, hepatitis A will be the focus of this brochure.
HOW PREVALENT IS IT?
Many years ago, before sanitation improved in this country, almost everyone was infected with this virus at some point in life, usually at a young age. Nowadays, less than 40% of all people in the United States are infected with hepatitis A, more often in adulthood. Interestingly, when a young child is infected with this virus, the child usually has no symptoms from the infection, but benefits by developing a life-long resistance to the infection. However, an infected child can easily spread the virus to older children and adults. An older child or adult usually develops typical symptoms of hepatitis.
WHAT ARE THE SYMPTOMS?
Three out of four adults infected with hepatitis A virus have symptoms. Typical symptoms are: low fever, poor appetite, nausea, abdominal pain, and fatigue, followed a few days later by a darkening of the urine and a yellowing of the skin and eyes known as "jaundice". Symptoms usually last a few weeks, but may last up to several months. It is not unusual for 2-6 months to pass before a person with hepatitis A feels back to normal. Fortunately, almost everyone recovers completely from hepatitis A, as long-term damage or death is unlikely.
People who contract hepatitis A can begin to show symptoms as early as 15 days to as late as 50 days after exposure. This is called the incubation period. People are most contagious to other people during the two weeks before and one week after onset of jaundice.
HOW IS IT TRANSMITTED?
Hepatitis A virus is shed in the stool (feces) of infected persons. It is usually transmitted through oral ingestion, and therefore, a person with hepatitis A can spread the virus to others by practicing poor personal hygiene. Person-to-person contact is the most likely way the disease spreads. It may also occur among children or employees in day care centers. It is uncommonly associated with food or waterborne disease outbreaks, although often the source of infection is unknown. Hepatitis A can be spread by food handlers inadvertently transferring the virus to the food they handle. Therefore, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that people with this virus abstain from handling food until they have recovered from their illness.
HOW CAN THE VIRUS BE PREVENTED?
Good sanitary and personal hygiene practices can help prevent the spread of hepatitis A. Also, the hepatitis virus is destroyed by heat, thus thorough cooking of contaminated food products will destroy the virus. However, consumers must be aware that cooked food can also become contaminated by infected food handlers.
Also, a recently developed vaccine is now available to protect against hepatitis A. Contact your physician for more information.
HOW CAN THE VIRUS BE DIAGNOSED AND PREVENTED IN PERSONS NOT VACCINATED?
Persons suspected of having hepatitis A can get confirmation of the virus only through blood tests. People who have not received a vaccination, but have been exposed to Hepatitis A virus, may be protected from illness by immune globulin injections administered by their health care provider.
WHO SHOULD YOU CONTACT IF YOU SUSPECT YOU HAVE HEPATITIS A?
If you suspect you have this virus, you should immediately contact your physician for diagnosis and treatment. Diagnosed cases should be referred to the State and local health departments. Diagnosed cases associated with meat, poultry, or egg products as the source of contamination also should be reported to the Office of Public Health & Science, Emergency Response Division of the Food Safety and Inspection Service, USDA, at (202) 501-7521.
WHERE TO GET MORE INFORMATION ABOUT HEPATITIS.
Physicians and public health officials are best qualified to answer questions about hepatitis. You may obtain additional information about hepatitis A and other hepatitis viruses by writing to:1)American Public Health Association,
1015 15th St., NW
Washington, DC 20005; and
2) CDC, National Center for Infectious Diseases,
Division of Viral and Rickettsial Diseases, Hepatitis Branch (G 37),
Atlanta, GA 30333, or
via INTERNET at (http://www.cdc.gov.).
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