The CDC has been reporting on an ongoing person to person outbreak of Hepatitis A for years. Since the outbreaks were first identified in 2016, 37 states have publicly reported the following as of October 6, 2023:
• Cases: 44,915
• Hospitalizations: 27,445 (61%)
• Deaths: 423
Now, the CDC has just reported : Preventable Deaths During Widespread Community Hepatitis A Outbreaks — United States, 2016–2022
Hardly a week goes by that there is not yet another announcement of a hepatitis A positive employee putting co-workers, customers and the restaurant brand at risk. There have been illnesses, deaths, thousands of customers have had to stand in long lines to get preventative vaccines, some restaurants have shuttered and there certainly have been lawsuits.
All preventable by a hepatitis A vaccination – the only foodborne illness that is vaccine preventable.
It really is past time for public health to recommend the same. Here is what I have asked the CDC for:
Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices
1600 Clifton Road, N.E., Mailstop H24-8
Atlanta, GA 30329-4027
Re: Letter to the CDC’s Committee on Immunization Practices – It is time to deal with Hepatitis A and Food Service Workers
Dear ACIP Secretariat:
The Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP) provides advice and guidance to the Director of the CDC regarding use of vaccines and related agents for control of vaccine-preventable diseases in the civilian population of the United States. Recommendations made by the ACIP are reviewed by the CDC Director and, if adopted, are published as official CDC/HHS recommendations in the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR).
Presently, approximately 5% of all hepatitis A outbreaks are linked to infected food-handlers.
Here is what the CDC continues to say about vaccinating food-handlers:
Why does CDC not recommend all food handlers be vaccinated if an infected food handler can spread disease during outbreaks?
CDC does not recommend vaccinating all food handlers because doing so would not prevent or stop the ongoing outbreaks primarily affecting individuals who report using or injecting drugs and people experiencing homelessness. Food handlers are not at increased risk for hepatitis A because of their occupation. During ongoing outbreaks, transmission from food handlers to restaurant patrons has been extremely rare because standard sanitation practices of food handlers help prevent the spread of the virus. Individuals who live in a household with an infected person or who participate in risk behaviors previously described are at greater risk for hepatitis A infection.
The CDC misses the point; granted, food service workers are not more at risk of getting hepatitis A because of their occupation, but they are a risk for spreading it to customers. Food service positions are typically low paying, and certainly have the likelihood of being filled by people who are immigrants from countries where hepatitis A might be endemic or by people who have been recently experienced homelessness.
Over the past several years, there has been an ongoing outbreak of hepatitis A in the United States. As of February 2, 2023, there have been a total of 44,779 cases with a 61% hospitalization rate (approximately 27,342 hospitalizations). The death toll stands at 421. Since the outbreak started in 2016, 37 states have reported cases to the CDC.
The CDC recommends to the public that the best way to prevent hepatitis A is through vaccination, but the CDC has not explicitly stated that food service workers should be administered the vaccination. While food service workers are not traditionally designated as having an increased risk of hepatitis A transmission, they are not free from risk.
24% of hepatitis A cases are asymptomatic, which means a food-handler carrying the virus can unknowingly transmit the disease to consumers. Historically, when an outbreak occurs, local health departments start administering the vaccine for free or at a reduced cost. The funding from these vaccinations is through taxpayer dollars.
A mandatory vaccination policy for all food service workers was shown to be effective at reducing infections and economic burden in St. Louis County, Missouri.
From 1996 to 2003, Clark Country, Nevada had 1,523 confirmed cases of hepatitis A, which was higher than the national average. Due to these alarming rates, Clark County implemented a mandatory vaccination policy for food service workers. As a result, in 2000, the hepatitis A rates significantly dropped and reached historic lows in 2010. The county removed the mandatory vaccine rule in 2012 and are now part of the ongoing hepatitis A outbreak.
According to the CDC, the vaccinations cost anywhere from $30 to $120 to administer, compared to thousands of dollars in hospital bills, and offer a 95% efficacy rate after the first dose and a 99% efficacy after the second dose. Furthermore, the vaccine retains its efficacy for 15-20 years.
During an outbreak, if a food service worker is found to be hepatitis A positive, a local health department will initiate post-exposure treatment plans that must be administered within a two-week period to be effective. The economic burden also affects the health department in terms of personnel and other limited resources. Sometimes, the interventions implemented by the local health department may be ineffective.
Though there are many examples of point-source outbreaks of hepatitis A that have occurred within the past few years around the country, a particularly egregious outbreak occurred in the early fall of 2021 in Roanoke, Virginia. The health department was notified about the outbreak on September 21, 2021, after the first case was reported by a local hospital. The Roanoke Health Department, along with the Virginia Department of Health, investigated this outbreak.
Three different locations of a local restaurant, Famous Anthony’s, were ultimately determined to be associated with this outbreak. The Virginia Department of Health published a community announcement on September 24, 2021, about the outbreak and the potential exposure risk.
For purposes of the investigation, a case was defined as a “[p]erson with (a) discrete onset of symptoms and (b) jaundice or elevated serum aminotransferase levels and (c) [who] tested positive for hepatitis A (IgM anti-HAV-positive), and frequented any of three Famous Anthony’s locations, or was a close contact to the index case patient, during the dates of August 10 through August 27, 2021.”
As of November 2021, a total of 49 primary cases (40 confirmed and 9 probable) were identified in this outbreak. Two secondary cases were also identified. Cases ranged from 30 to 82 years of age (median age of 63). In all, 57 percent of cases were male. Thirty-one cases included hospitalizations, and at least 4 case patients died. Illness onsets occurred between August 25 and October 15, 2021.
Ultimately, the outbreak investigation revealed that a cook, who also had risk factors associated with hepatitis A, had been infected with hepatitis A while working at multiple Famous Anthony’s restaurant locations. This index case’s mother and adult son also tested positive for hepatitis A. Following an inspection, the outbreak inspector noted, “due to the etiology of hepatitis A transmission, it is assumed the infectious food handler did not perform proper hand washing or follow glove use policy.” It was determined that person-to-person spread was the most likely mode of transmission in this outbreak. Environmental contamination was also considered a possible mode of transmission.
Overwhelmed by the number of victims who pursued legal action for their injuries, Famous Anthony’s filed for bankruptcy and several of its locations have been closed.
The tragedy of this preventable hepatitis A outbreak cannot be overstated. Four people died. In one family, two of its members lost their lives. Most of the victims were hospitalized. Many risked acute liver failures. At least one person required both a liver and kidney transplants. Medical bills for the victims totaled over $6,000,000 in acute costs with millions of dollars in future expenses. And this all because one employee did not receive a $30-$120 hepatitis A vaccine.
Affordable prevention of future tragedies like the Famous Anthony’s outbreak is possible and necessary. The time has come to at least recommend vaccinations to food service workers to reduce the spread of hepatitis A.
On behalf of 31 hepatitis A victims and families
1 Privately, via mail, I am providing medical summaries for 31 of the victims so there can be a clear assessment of the impacts of hepatitis A on consumers of food at the hands of one unvaccinated food service worker.