12/22/11 — Health Department handles worries about Hepatitis A infection

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Health Department handles worries about Hepatitis A infection

By Phyllis Moore
Published in News on December 22, 2011 1:46 PM

As long as the public is aware of symptoms and treatments for Hepatitis A, there is no cause for alarm if the necessary precautions are taken, health officials say.

The Wayne County Health Department and Seymour Johnson Air Force Base have received "hundreds of calls" about possible exposure to Hepatitis A since news broke late Tuesday that a former employee at a yogurt shop had been diagnosed with the disease.

Health officials have since scrambled to ward off public fears, bringing in a state public health representative to meet with the Board of Health Wednesday and address concerns.

While it can be avoided if the vaccine is given within two weeks of exposure, there is no specific treatment once a person has Hepatitis A. Most people, however, recover without complications after several weeks, officials say.

The local hepatitis scare involved a food worker at Fruity Yogurt Shop at Cobblestone Place on Spence Avenue, Interim Health Director Evelyn Coley told the board.

The food handler no longer works at the establishment, she noted, and there have been no other reports of illness.

Still, since being notified by the state about lab work on the employee, she said her office has disseminated press releases to media outlets and alerted physicians' offices and pharmacies.

A clinic was held at the Health Department Wednesday, offering a free vaccine, but that would only be effective for those who ate there on Dec. 7, officials said.

The latest release, sent out Wednesday afternoon, was more specific about the timeline for exposure, originally targeting anyone who had visited the business on the 7th.

"People who ate at Fruity Yogurt located at 317 Spence Avenue Goldsboro, N.C. between December 1 and December 7, 2011 might have been exposed to Hepatitis A because of an infection in an employee. Individuals who ate at Fruity Yogurt between December 1 and December 6 are past the 14-day time period to receive vaccine," the release said.

Ms. Coley said the business maintains a log of how many patrons are served on a daily basis, and estimated that on Dec. 7 there were "about 50 people" at the business.

"We don't think it's a national or widespread event," she told the board. "The person does not work at that facility any more. She lives in Johnston County."

She did not identify the employee, except to say that the woman formerly lived in Wayne County and had initially gone to Wayne Memorial Hospital for treatment before seeking care at a hospital in Johnston County.

Board member Dr. Kim Larson asked if the woman had been hospitalized at all, and Ms. Coley confirmed that she had.

Not everyone exposed to Hepatitis A, however, is necessarily symptomatic, officials said.

The liver disease caused by the Hepatitis A virus is usually spread by eating or drinking items that have been contaminated with the virus or by close personal contact with an infected person. Symptoms appear two to seven weeks after exposure and commonly include fever, a feeling of being unwell, loss of appetite, diarrhea, nausea and abdominal discomfort. Jaundice is also a possibility.

"(Symptoms) can show up as early as today until 25 January," Ms. Coley said, "so we'll be on active surveillance until about the 25th of January."

Several board members asked whether Fruity Yogurt falls into the category of food establishments inspected by the Health Department.

"They're not inspected by Environmental Health because they're not considered a restaurant," Ms. Coley said. "But Environmental Health did go out (Tuesday) and interviewed owners. They assured us that the last day the girl worked was Dec. 7."

Board member Dr. Allan Harvin said, "I feel sorry for the restaurant, too, because it's probably not anything that's their fault."

Lori Taylor, from the communicable disease branch of the state's Division of Public Health, suggested the business likely comes under the jurisdiction of either the USDA or the Department of Agriculture.

"Do we know that they have been inspected?" asked board member Tommy Gibson.

Ms. Taylor said if so, it had been done by one of the aforementioned agencies and not through the Health Department.

Ms. Coley said she would look into that. This morning she said an inquiry had been made for more information on the agency responsible for inspecting Fruity Yogurt, but she had not received a response back from the state.

Dr. Rick Stovall, board chairman, said he wanted to do as much as possible to "allay the fears of people in Wayne County."

If nothing else, he suggested, residents should adhere to recommended precautions such as frequent hand-washing.

"Probably anybody exposed would not be symptomatic yet," Ms. Taylor said. "The good news is we rarely see any big outbreaks. That's why we take appropriate measures to try to prevent it. Even the person that was working was not symptomatic the days she was there. The problem is, you're still contagious."

"We don't believe her exposure occurred in the U.S. There was travel outside of the U.S. so we're not concerned that we may not have investigated (thoroughly)."

First Lt. Cassie Cosentino from Seymour Johnson said base officials have also been handling fallout from the situation, with phones "ringing off the hook" with inquiries.

Since active duty personnel are required to have the Hepatitis A vaccine, though, most of the calls have been from "worried moms" and spouses, she said.