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Canadian health agencies are investigating a hepatitis A outbreak in Alberta and Saskatchewan that was likely caused by imported organic strawberries.
According to the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC), six people in Saskatchewan and four people in Alberta have gotten sick from eating the fruit. While four people have been hospitalized, the PHAC says there have been no reported deaths.
The imported fresh organic strawberries were purchased in early March at Co-op stores in both provinces under the brand name FreshKampo or HEB. Despite the berries no longer being available on Canadian store shelves, health officials are asking people to check their freezers in case they stored the strawberries for later use.
In the United States, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has also identified the outbreak, reporting 17 cases in three states.
Canadian food-borne illness expert Dr. Michael J. Rieder says it’s not uncommon for fruit to get contaminated with hepatitis A. However, the professor of paediatrics medicine, physiology and pharmacology at Western University in London, Ont. advises that people should be mindful of what hepatitis A symptoms look like in case a person gets infected with the disease.
What is hepatitis A?
According to Johns Hopkins Medicine, hepatitis A is an infection that affects the liver and is typically transmitted through the fecal-oral route. That means a person ingests contaminated fecal matter from an infected person.
For example, if an infected person doesn't wash their hands properly after using the bathroom, the disease can spread from the person’s hands.
A person infected with hepatitis A can remain infectious for a period of two to six weeks, but the majority of people infected with the disease will recover within three to six months and likely won't face life-long health issues.
What are the signs and symptoms of hepatitis A?
Symptoms of hepatitis A typically appear 14 to 28 days after a person contracts the virus and according to Reider, depend on the age of the person infected.
Children under the age of six are typically asymptomatic and likely won’t even know they have the disease.
However, anyone over the age of six may develop the following symptoms:
Flu-like illness (fever, fatigue, body aches)
Loss of appetite
Unexplained weight loss
Jaundice (yellowing of the skin or eyes)
Rieder says anyone who experiences jaundice should be seek medical help.
“If your eyes turn yellow or your skin turns yellow you’ve got to see a doctor, because while most of the cases of hepatitis get better, eventually, with just some observation and care, there’s the odd patient that develops hepatic failure and dies,” he explains to Yahoo Canada. “You want to be sure you’re receiving good monitoring.”
The PHAC advises anyone who suspects they have been exposed to these organic strawberries or has symptoms consistent with hepatitis A should see their health care provider.
How does fruit get contaminated with hepatitis A?
In an interview with USA Today, Francisco Diez ,the director of the Center for Food Safety at the University of Georgia, says the source of any hepatitis A contamination is human and it can happen through a number of different ways.
“One of them could be because the water used for irrigating the strawberries could have been contaminated with sewage because the virus is specific for humans," he explains.
Another possibility is, as mentioned above, a person who was handling the fruit did not properly wash their hands after using the bathroom.
Does washing fruit kill off the contamination?
Even though the organic strawberries are no longer available for purchase in Canada, health experts recommend anyone who bought and froze the fruit to throw it out as the virus can survive freezing.
Thoroughly washing the fruit also isn’t guaranteed to help.
“It’s possible to eliminate it [contamination], but it’s not for certain,” Diez says. “If you think [the fruit is] one of the infected ones, just throw it away.”