Thousands get hepatitis A inoculation
Officials tracking suspect berries in private sector

April 3, 1997 - Web posted at: 11:20 p.m. EST

(CNN) -- Thousands of children were inoculated against hepatitis A Thursday as federal officials investigated how Mexican-grown strawberries became tainted with the virus, and how many were distributed to retail outlets and restaurants.

Students in Michigan, Arizona, California, Georgia, Iowa and Tennessee may have been exposed to the virus when they ate strawberries in school lunches.

About 2,000 children in California and Georgia were inoculated Thursday against hepatitis A. More will get shots on Friday, and health officials in Arizona and Michigan plan inoculation plans of their own.

One Los Angeles school served the suspect dessert cups on Monday after it was left off a list of schools warned last Friday. More than 700 kids and teachers at Mount Vernon Middle School will have to get shots next week.

In Michigan the CDC confirmed 175 cases of hepatitis linked to the berries.

Health officials were tracking down the more than 1,400 people who attended a Special Olympics event on March 22 in Grand Rapids at which strawberry shortcake made with the tainted berries was served. Participants were being advised to see their doctors.

Hepatitis A, which causes a mild liver infection, is spread through uncooked food. People exposed to the disease can take gamma globulin shots to ward it off.

The $18 per-dose inoculations will be paid for by San Diego-based Andrew & Williamson Sales Co., the packing company that distributed the frozen strawberries. The president of A&W has resigned.

The firm is now the subject of a criminal investigation, because only U.S.-grown produce can be sold to the school lunch program.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention confirmed hundreds of thousands of pounds of the berries were sold in the private sector to make jams and jellies. But director Dr. David Satcher told CNN the risk of becoming ill with hepatitis A is very small.

"The majority of the people who received the berries, especially adults, are probably already immune to hepatitis A because they've encountered it before," Satcher said in an interview. "Many of the berries were served in such a way that they were pasteurized before serving."

Matthew Kramer, a vice president at Epitope Inc., Andrew & Williamson's parent company, said the USDA ordered 1.7 million pounds of strawberries from A&W for its school lunch program. Another 900,000 pounds went to other customers, Kramer said.

Federal officials have recalled all 2.6 million pounds.

The CDC is still trying to determine how the berries became tainted.

Mexican agriculture officials quickly responded to claims that the strawberries -- grown in northern Baja California, Mexico -- were probably contaminated there.

Baja California Assistant Secretary of Agriculture Israel Camacho said he thought it was more likely the berries were contaminated "during processing and packing rather than during cultivation."

Satcher said the problem is limited to frozen strawberries processed in April or May of last year. "There's no problem that we know of with fresh strawberries, so no one should have any concern about the consumption of strawberries other than these lots we've identified," Satcher said.

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

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