Local News

Six States May

Posted Updated
Bob Gochnour
LOS ANGELES (AP) — Schoolchildren in sixstates may have beenexposed to the hepatitis A virus by eating contaminated frozenstrawberries that had been shipped as a part of a federal schoollunch program.

Beaverton, Ore.-based Epitope Inc. is the parent of the SanDiego company that processed and froze the Mexican strawberries.

So far, the only reported illnesses linked to the taintedberries were in Michigan, where about 151 students and teachershave been sickened, apparently after eating strawberries providedat lunch, federal authorities said.

In Los Angeles, up to 9,000 youngsters and adults may have beenexposed. School and health officials determined that fruit cupsserved last week in 18 Los Angeles public schools may have beencontaminated with the virus.

As a precaution, California health officials planned to offerprotective gamma globulin shots later this week.

``It's not a panic situation,'' said Dr. Shirley Fannin, LosAngeles County's director of disease control programs, noting thatthere is a 14-day incubation period. ``We're here within a week ofconsumption. We have another week to plan.''

In Wake County, North Carolina, a huge shipment awaits USDA inspectioninside the Child Nutrition Warehouse. Warehouse supervisor Bob Gochnourtold WRAL-TV5'sMark Robertsthat,because students are out on spring break, none of the suspicious ortainted berries have yet made their way into schools here.

The main food storage warehouse for other schools in North Carolina isin Butner. There have been no problems yet reported in any part of thestate.

Unlike more dangerous forms of the disease, hepatitis A causesa mild liver infection and is spread through uncooked food. Those atrisk of more severe symptoms are the elderly, people with weakimmune systems and the very young.

For most people, symptoms appear about 28 days after exposure.They include jaundice, fatigue, abdominal discomfort, vomiting,fever and dark urine.

The virus can be transmitted orally or through human waste,often by food handlers with poor personal hygiene, throughundercooked shellfish from infected waters or through tainted wateror ice.

Gamma globulin is effective before exposure and within twoweeksafter.

Tom Amontree, communications director for the U.S. DepartmentofAgriculture in Washington, said Tuesday that 17 states might havebeen shipped tainted strawberries and were asked to ``put a hold''on the fruit, which came from the same company.

But today, the agency and the Food and Drug Administration saidonly six states - Michigan, Arizona, California, Georgia, Iowa andTennessee - received berries believed linked to the outbreakbecause all bore the same lot number. Nine other states and theDistrict of Columbia received shipments from the same company butthe berries had different lot numbers, the agencies said.

Those states are Florida, Illinois, Indiana, Maine, New Jersey,New York, North Carolina, North Dakota and Wisconsin.

The California Department of Health Services determined thestrawberries were grown in Mexico, then frozen and processed byAndrew and Williamson Sales of San Diego last spring. The agencysaid the strawberries were shipped for bulk distribution toUSDA-sponsored school lunch programs in December.

Ken August, a spokesman for the California Department of HealthServices, said that after receiving the frozen strawberries, theL.A. school district sent them on to another company that ``addedstrawberries and blueberries to the frozen sliced strawberries andmade it into the dessert.''

Mary Hagen, manager of investor relations for Epitope Inc. ofBeaverton, Ore., the parent of Andrew and Williamson, said todaythat Epitope isn't sure what caused the problem. Epitope officialsare at the San Diego subsidiary today looking into it.

``The problem could have occurred at any number of levels,''shesaid. ``It could have been at the growers or in the packaging or inthe processing somewhere. The company is looking into everything.''

Efforts are made at the packaging plant to make sure thestrawberries are clean, Hagen said.

Epitope recalled 13 lots of frozen berries shipped by AndrewandWilliamson early in December 1996, shortly before Epitope acquiredthe company.

``The health and well-being of the public is Andrew andWilliamson's foremost concern,'' Epitope President Adolph J. Ferrosaid Tuesday in a statement.

Iowa officials warned that about 300 of Iowa's schools may haveserved the fruit as recently as last week.

In Michigan, 128 cases of hepatitis A have been confirmed intwocounties. Bob Howard, a spokesman for the Centers for DiseaseControl and Prevention's National Center for Infectious Diseases,said an investigation has ``strongly implicated'' a single batch ofstrawberries.

By JANE E. ALLEN,AP Science WriterCopyright ©1997 AssociatedPress. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast,rewritten, or distributed.

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