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Possible secondary hepatitis case probed in Beaver

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Wednesday, February 11, 2004

Associated Press

The state Health Department is trying to determine if a fast-food employee infected with hepatitis A caught it as part of an outbreak linked to green onions at a Chi-Chi’s Mexican restaurant less than a mile away.

The latest case was reported to state health officials on Feb. 4.

Health officials told The Associated Press they aren’t identifying the restaurant where the female cashier works because there’s no public health threat there and no evidence of another outbreak. “If we felt there was a chance the general public was at risk, we would say” the name of the restaurant, said Jay Pagni, a department spokesman.

But Rick Rehak, a regional marketing director for McDonalds, told the Beaver County Times, which first reported the incident, that the restaurant in question is a freestanding McDonalds fast food outlet at the Wal-Mart Plaza in Center Township, about a half mile from the Chi-Chi’s restaurant.

The McDonalds is open and operating normally, Rehak said.

At least 660 people were sickened through December, including three who died, in the hepatitis A outbreak linked to the Chi-Chi’s. The outbreak, which was called the largest single-source, food-borne outbreak in American history, mostly involved people who ate at the Mexican restaurant in late September and October.

The Food and Drug Administration and other agencies have traced the outbreak to tainted green onions grown in Mexico, although the FDA has yet to say where along the supply chain the onions were contaminated with hepatitis A. The virus is spread through contact with human waste of an infected person.

Health officials said no other McDonalds employees are ill, though about 50 were inoculated last week so they won’t develop the liver virus in the event they were exposed to it. Pagni said anyone in close contact with the woman has been inoculated.

McDonalds customers aren’t at risk because the sick woman didn’t prepare food. “She can’t be passing this to the public,” said Richard McGarvey, another health department spokesman.

It’s also possible the woman contracted the virus another way, and that her case is not related to the outbreak, Pagni said.

“There are from time to time sporadic cases,” Pagni said. “We’re investigating to see if it’s connected to Chi-Chi’s at this point.”

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