Published Online: April 9, 1997


Hepatitis Scare Spurs Administrators Into Action

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Ever since federal officials announced last week that a batch of strawberries contaminated with hepatitis A had been shipped to schools in six states, school officials have been scrambling to vaccinate students who may have been exposed to the highly contagious liver disease.

So far, though, only Michigan residents are known to have been stricken by the virus.

Following an outbreak in Calhoun County, Mich., last month, the U.S. Department of Agriculture was able to trace the virus to a shipment of frozen fruit that a California food processor had supplied. One hundred students and eight school workers in the Marshall district had eaten strawberry shortcake in their school lunches and taken ill.

Superintendent Louis Giannunzio reacted quickly. The district erected three immunization clinics at schools where county health officials administered 2,000 gamma-globulin shots in three days.

"When you've got 2,500 students, the potential for spreading is very great," Mr. Giannunzio said last week. "We did [the vaccinations] to cut down on the second wave."

According to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the illness can be controlled if the vaccine is administered within 14 days of exposure. A mild liver infection that is characterized by nausea, vomiting, and fever, hepatitis A is most often transmitted by handling or consuming fecal-contaminated food or water. Sometimes, however, symptoms don't show up for weeks.

Mass Vaccinations

USDA officials charged last week that the contaminated fruit shipped to the western Michigan district came from a San Diego packing company that imported the berries from growers in Mexico. The agency warned health officials in Arizona, California, Georgia, Iowa, and Tennessee, which received tainted strawberries from the same batch, not to distribute them. As a precaution, the USDA also asked nine other states and the District of Columbia not to serve any strawberries linked to the Southern California packing concern, Andrew & Williamson Co.

USDA regulations require that school meals programs use commodities from domestic producers. Any violation could warrant criminal prosecution, officials said. Late last week, Fred L. Williamson, the president of the food-processing company, resigned.

Meanwhile, dozens of school officials outside of Michigan who had received the tainted fruit but who had yet to see infection rates rise, mobilized for mass inoculations last week.

Los Angeles Unified School District officials were setting up clinics in 18 schools, where 9,000 students and adults may have been exposed to the virus from eating strawberry fruit cups served in school lunches at the end of last month.

"This has never happened before on this scale," said Pat Spencer, a spokesman for the nation's second-largest school district.

Still, he said that it could have been much worse: Three-fourths of the 680,000 students in the district were on spring break the week the potentially infected fruit cups were served.

Mr. Spencer and other school officials across the country said that they want assurances from federal officials that the school food supply is safe. "We don't have the facilities to test food constantly," Mr. Spencer said. "You assume it's OK stuff."

At a press briefing in Washington last week, USDA officials said that there are strict federal and state rules governing health and safety practices in the nation's school lunch program, which serves 25 million children each day. Federal officials are still investigating at what point in the process--from the fields to the lunch table--the fruit was contaminated.

Tami Cline, the director of nutrition and education for the American School Food Service Association in Alexandria, Va., said that schools shouldn't fear that the food served in them is unsafe because such an epidemic is extremely rare. "Americans should be very proud of their food supply," she said.

Switching to Cherries

For many parents, however, the next few weeks are going to be an anxious waiting game. Cindy Older, the president of the PTA council for the Battle Creek, Mich., public schools--one of the hardest-hit districts in the country--is watching to see if her 6th grader, who ate the strawberry shortcake along with most of his classmates on Valentine's Day, develops symptoms. The boy is past the 14-day point at which the vaccine would stave off infection.

"We are all a little jumpy," Ms. Older said.

It's this wariness that has prompted a school meals director in Iowa to keep a perfectly good batch of uninfected strawberries in a freezer for the time being.

"They were on the menu for [this] week, but it's not worth putting students through the stress of having strawberries," said Beth Hanna, the director of nutrition services in the West Des Moines schools. "So we switched to cherries."

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