Hepatitis A (HAV) is a foodborne illness that is relatively uncommon in nations with developed sanitation systems.  Despite this, approximately one-third of the United States population has at some point become infected with the hepatitis A virus, which causes an illness that ranges in severity from a mild illness lasting only a few weeks to a severe illness lasting several months.  In some cases, hepatitis A infection leads to acute liver failure and death. 

hepatitis A (HAV) vaccineInfection with hepatitis A is the result of the ingestion of fecal matter from contact with contaminated surfaces, food, beverages, or other people.  Because infection with hepatitis A occurs after the ingestion of very few organisms, proper sanitation is key to preventing the spread of the virus.  HAV is relatively stable and will survive for up to a month at ambient temperatures in the environment, but can be inactivated by heating to 185°F (85°C) or higher, or exposure to formalin or chlorine.

In 2003, over 650 confirmed cases of hepatitis A, both primary and secondary, were linked to consumption of green onions at the Beaver Valley Mall Chi-Chi’s in Beaver, Pennsylvania. The victims included at least 13 employees of the restaurant, and numerous residents of six other states. Four people died as a consequence of their hepatitis A illness. In addition, more than 9,000 people who had eaten at the restaurant during the period of potential exposure, or who had been exposed to ill Chi-Chi’s customers, obtained immune globulin shots to prevent hepatitis A infection.

Rather than receiving immune globulin shots post-exposure, Americans have the choice of receiving the hepatitis A vaccine, which first became available in 1995 and is a series of two shots.  After the first does of hepatitis A vaccine, 94 to 100 percent of recipients are protected against hepatitis A infection; nearly all are protected after the second dose.  In 2005, the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP) recommended routine hepatitis A vaccination for all children ages 12-23 months. ACIP recommended 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.

As parents are readying their children to attend daycare, pre-school, elementary, and high school this summer, they should educate themselves about the hepatitis A vaccine, and talk with their health care providers about integrating this vaccine into their child’s schedule if it has not been already. 

You know what they say about an ounce of prevention.