The hepatitis A outbreak in Hawaii, which has sickened at least 168 people, may have been solved with the announcement that raw scallops served at Genki Sushi restaurants on the islands of Oahu and Kauai may be to blame. But how does that virus get into shellfish in the first place?
The scallops were imported into Hawaii by two distributors: Koha Oriental Foods and True World Foods. Koha Oriental Foods supplied the product to Genki Sushi Restaurants on Oahu and Kauai. Recently, True World Foods also started selling frozen imported scallops to that restaurant chain. We don’t know where the scallops were grown and harvested. An embargo has been placed on scallops distributed by those two establishments.
There have been hepatitis A outbreaks linked to shellfish imported from third world and development countries such as Thailand, the Philippines, or other countries in southeast Asia, where the virus is common, according to the CDC. Feces from ill persons in the water where the shellfish are grown or harvested can contain the virus. Or an infected person who harvests the fish or processes it for packing can transmit the virus.
Bivalves such as oysters and scallops eat through filter feeding: they move water through their flesh and filter out food. Viruses and bacteria can then concentrate in their flesh. When the shellfish is harvested and eaten raw or undercooked, it can make people sick. It can take as few as 100 viruses to make someone ill.
Hepatitis A outbreaks in this country have been linked to ill food service workers, to imported berries, to shellfish, and to other produce such as lettuce and green onions. The virus is very contagious and can be spread through person-to-person contact, through contaminated water or food, or through contact with surfaces.
If you choose to eat raw shellfish, make sure that the fish come from an impeccable source. In restaurants, ask where the shellfish comes from. People who are at high risk for complications from food poisoning, such as the very young, the elderly, pregnant women, those with chronic illnesses, and people with compromised immune systems should not eat raw shellfish or raw meat.
The symptoms of hepatitis A include fever, nausea, diarrhea, lethargy, tiredness, clay colored stool, dark urine, yellow eyes and skin (jaundice), weight loss, abdominal cramps, and lack of appetite. If you ate at the Genki Sushi restaurants in Hawaii and have experienced these symptoms, see your doctor.
Most people with hepatitis A recover on their own in a few months. Symptoms usually appear 15 to 50 days after exposure to the virus. Some people, especially those with liver disease, can become seriously ill and need to be hospitalized. There are 46 people in this particular outbreak who have been hospitalized.
One of the problems with this illness is that people are contagious for two weeks before they show any symptoms, so they go to work, prepare food for others, and can infect many people before they even know they are sick. To help prevent the spread of this illness, stay home if you are sick. Wash your hands well with soap and water before handling food for anyone, after using the bathroom, and after caring for someone who is ill. See your doctor about a hepatitis A vaccination if you think you may have been exposed.