An outbreak of hepatitis A linked to frozen pomegranate seeds killed a 64-year-old woman in Australia. Government officials in the country made the announcement earlier this week and reminded people that the seeds are part of a nationwide recall.
“This is a rare and tragic case and I offer my sincere condolences to the woman’s family,” South Australia Health’s Chief Medical Officer and Chief Public Health Officer, Paddy Phillips, said in a press release. The death of the woman, who has not been publicly identified, is believed to be the only fatality linked to this outbreak, Lauren Barker, a media advisor for South Australia Health, tells SELF.
The 180-gram Creative Gourmet frozen pomegranate seeds were initially recalled two months ago, and there have been 24 cases of hepatitis A linked to the seeds. "The incubation period for hepatitis A is generally 15-50 days, so we don’t anticipate further cases because the product was recalled two months ago," the press statement said.
Hepatitis A is a highly contagious liver infection that can cause anything from a mild illness that lasts a few weeks to a severe illness that lasts several months. And, in rare cases, it can cause death.
Hepatitis A is usually passed on when someone unknowingly ingests the virus from food, drink, or objects that have been contaminated by small amounts of fecal matter from a person who is infected by the virus, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) explains. However, people can also contract it from close personal contact with an infected person.
Most people who contract hepatitis A will have symptoms like a fever, fatigue, loss of appetite, nausea, vomiting, clay-colored poop, and jaundice about four weeks after they were exposed, the CDC says, and symptoms can last up to two months (although some people may have symptoms for as long as six months). “But it usually doesn’t kill people,” infectious disease expert Amesh A. Adalja, M.D., senior scholar at the John's Hopkins Center for Health Security, tells SELF.
There are a few things that might make a person more at risk from having serious complications if they contract the virus compared to others.
Those that do die from the illness usually have an underlying liver disease that would have already compromised their liver function, Dr. Adalja says. (The medical history of the woman who died in Australia remains unknown.) People who are immunocompromised may also be at a greater risk of serious complications of hepatitis A than others, William Schaffner, M.D., an infectious disease specialist and professor at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine, tells SELF. The risk that someone will have a sudden loss of liver function due to hepatitis A also increases with age, the Mayo Clinic says.
There’s no specific antiviral medication designed to treat hepatitis A, Richard Watkins, M.D., an infectious disease specialist in Akron, Ohio, and an associate professor at Northeast Ohio Medical University, tells SELF. So people are often given supportive care to help them ride out uncomfortable symptoms.
The hepatitis A virus isn’t super common in the U.S., but outbreaks do happen.
There were an estimated 4,000 cases of hepatitis A in the U.S. in 2016, according to the CC. This past January, an outbreak of hepatitis A occurred in Utah in connection to food sold at a 7-Eleven, Olive Garden, and Sonic Drive-In, causing at least 133 cases of the infection.
In 2016, there was a multi-state outbreak of hepatitis A linked to frozen strawberries that caused 143 cases of the infection, and another outbreak of the virus linked to raw scallops in Hawaii that same year. And in 2013, a frozen berry mix that included pomegranate seeds was recalled after the product was linked to at least 34 hepatitis A cases in five states.
Still, it’s not something to lose sleep over—there is a good chance you were vaccinated against hepatitis A as a child, and there are precautionary measures you can take to help avoid infection.
The hepatitis A vaccine was introduced in the U.S. in 1995, and it’s now administered with other routine childhood vaccinations (although many adults have not been vaccinated). “Hepatitis A rates have been going down dramatically in the U.S. thanks to vaccinations,” Dr. Adalja says.
While hepatitis A can show up in your food, it’s nowhere near as common as infections from things like salmonella or E.coli, Dr. Schaffner says. And if you’ve gotten the hepatitis A vaccine, you should be protected even if it does wind up in your food. Practicing good hand hygiene—which includes thoroughly washing your hands after you use the bathroom, changing diapers, and before preparing or eating food—can also help reduce the spread of the infection, the CDC says.
“You don’t have to be very worried about this,” Dr. Schaffner says. “Overall, our food supply is very safe.”
Still, if you suspect that you’ve been infected by hepatitis A, it’s important to see your doctor. They should be able to confirm a diagnosis and offer supportive care to make you more comfortable.