From the duh files: should food workers be vaccinated against Hepatitis A?

JoNel Aleccia of NBC News writes the question of whether hepatitis A inoculations should be mandatory for food workers — or whether the cost to business isn’t worth the wider benefit — is gaining renewed attention from federal regulators, health officials and ordinary consumers amid a spate of new restaurant warnings.

hepatitis.AAs many as 17,000 people a year are sickened by hepatitis A, according to 2010 estimates from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and about 95 people die. That’s only a fraction of the 48 million people in the U.S. who are sickened by food poisoning each year, but hepatitis A is the only foodborne bug for which an effective vaccine actually exists.

The hepatitis A virus causes acute liver infection that can trigger lingering illness and even liver failure or death, though that’s rare. It’s spread when a person ingests fecal material from an infected person and causes symptoms that include, fever, chills, nausea, dark-colored urine and jaundice, a yellowing of the skin or eyes.

In 2006, experts began recommending universal hepatitis A vaccines for kids starting at age 1, changing the pool of potential infections.

“There was a very rapid transition in the U.S. over the last half decade,” Murphy said. “We have this gap of adults who are not protected in their 20s, 30s, 40s and 50s.”

In other words, the people most vulnerable to hepatitis A are those most likely to work — and eat — in restaurants.

Bill Marler, a Seattle food safety lawyer has lobbied for mandatory vaccination for food handlers since a hepatitis A outbreak tied to two Subway sandwich shops sickened 40 people in 1999.

“It was a horrible outbreak. We represented a bunch of people including a little boy who lost his liver at 8 years old and required a transplant,” he said.

But restaurant industry officials — and some health officials — note that such outbreaks and consequences, though regrettable, are rare.