Hepatitis A is totally and completely preventable. Although outbreaks continue to occur in the United States, no one should ever get infected if preventive measures are taken. For example, food handlers must always wash their hands with soap and water after using the bathroom, changing a diaper, and certainly before preparing food. Food handlers should always wear gloves when handling or preparing ready-to-eat foods, although gloves are not a substitute for good hand washing. Ill food-handlers should be excluded from work.
In 2006, the ACIP recommended routine hepatitis A vaccination for all children ages 12-23 months, that hepatitis A vaccination be integrated into the routine childhood vaccination schedule, and that children not vaccinated by two years of age be vaccinated subsequently. The vaccine may also help protect household contacts of those persons infected with hepatitis A. Although generally not a legal requirement at this time, vaccination of food handlers would be expected to substantially diminish the incidence of hepatitis A outbreaks.
Hepatitis A is a communicable (or contagious) disease that often spreads from person to person. Person-to-person transmission occurs via the “fecal-oral route,” while all other exposure is generally attributable to contaminated food or water.
Food-related outbreaks are usually associated with contamination of food during preparation by a Hepatitis A-infected food handler. The food handler is generally not ill because the peak time of infectivity—that is, when the most virus is present in the stool of an infected individual—occurs two weeks before illness begins.
Fresh produce contaminated during cultivation, harvesting, processing, and distribution has also been a source of hepatitis A.
Hepatitis A is relatively stable and can survive for several hours on fingertips and hands and up to two months on dry surfaces. The virus can be inactivated by heating to 185°F (85°C) or higher for one minute or disinfecting surfaces with a 1:100 dilution of sodium hypochlorite (household bleach) in tap water. It must be noted, however, that HAV can still be spread from cooked food if it is contaminated after cooking.
Although ingestion of contaminated food is a common means of spread for hepatitis A, it may also be spread by household contact among families or roommates, sexual contact, or by direct inoculation from persons sharing illicit drugs. Children are often asymptomatic, or have unrecognized infections, and can pass the virus through ordinary play, unknown to their parents, who may later become infected from contact with their children.