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Hepatitis A and Foodservice Workers

Customer exposures to Hepatitis A have seen a major increase throughout the first half of the year, with cases appearing in the US in Arkansas, Indiana, and California as well as other states, resulting in a multi-state outbreak of around 1,200 patients which led to the deaths of at least 40 people. Governing bodies are urging all North American food service workers to ensure that they are vaccinated against the easily transmittable Hepatitis A virus - especially in communities near the infected areas or workers who travel often. Here’s what food service workers and restaurant owners need to know about the relationship between Hepatitis A and the food service industry.

What is Hepatitis A?

Hepatitis A is an infectious virus that causes inflammation of the liver and affects its ability to function properly, causing symptoms like loss of appetite, fever, jaundice, fatigue, intense itching, and stomach cramps. Cases can range from mild illnesses that dissipate within a number of days, to severe cases that can last for months - the virus can be deadly for those with chronic diseases of the liver, and people over the age of 60.
Hepatitis A can be transmitted to humans through both contaminated food and beverages and is often asymptomatic in its early stages, making it an extremely important issue for food service professionals. Hepatitis A can also be transferred through contact with the feces of an infected person, both directly and indirectly. The severity of the virus also ranges, with some shaking off the symptoms without any ill effects, and others developing serious liver complications that can lead to a lifelong battle or even death.

Why is it so important that food service workers get vaccinated?

One of the most common causes of Hepatitis A is through consuming food and beverages that have been handled by a food service professional infected with the virus. Since symptoms generally do not develop until two to seven weeks after infection, many food service workers are unaware that they are carrying the virus in the first place, unwittingly spreading it to customers and colleagues through the unsafe handling of foods and improper handwashing measures. The ease of which people are infected with Hepatitis A and the subtlety of the virus’ early stages makes it extremely important for food service workers to be vaccinated.
Food service professionals are one of highest risk groups of passing the virus onto others, with Hepatitis A being able to survive on surfaces, and even in foods and beverages that have been frozen. Hepatitis A vaccines are up to 97% effective in cases of pre-exposure, and 80% in infected individuals who are vaccinated within the first week. Hepatitis A vaccines are extremely common in Canada, and are publicly funded by OHIP and other provincial health care governmental organizations.
The vaccine is being recommended by food safety experts around the country in order to reduce the risk of contracting the virus and unknowingly infecting others during the viruses incubation stage.

What else can I do to protect myself and others?

Since Hepatitis A is often transmitted to food, beverages, and surfaces through direct contact with the improperly washed hands of food service workers, the most effective way to combat the virus is through proper handwashing. Proper hand washing rules in restaurants and food service establishments should be enforced by managers and owners, especially after employees use the bathroom or handle foods like raw shellfish, fruits, and vegetables. Proper handwashing techniques can be reinforced in all employees with the implementation of infographics and posters driven by visuals around the workplace, especially near designated handwashing stations and bathrooms.
For more information about the online and in-class food safety training offered by the experts at Food Safety Market, visit the enroll page here.