Sun-dried tomato alert: Health investigators link the celebrity chefs' favourite to outbreak of hepatitis casesBy Beezy Marsh
Last updated at 10:41 AM on 5th March 2012
Health experts are investigating an outbreak of potentially deadly hepatitis linked to sun-dried tomatoes, it emerged yesterday.
Seven people developed symptoms of hepatitis A, which is infectious and can lead to fatal liver complications.
Four of them were hospitalised by the illness but have now been given the all-clear.
This is because they are unable to test food for the virus and do not know which brand of sun-dried tomato is responsible.
The Government’s Health Protection Agency and the Food Standards Agency are on the alert for further cases after the two men and five women became ill. Four of the patients live in the East of England, two in London and one in the South West.
The health alert was triggered when two of the cases were reported late last year to the HPA.
Their hepatitis A was identical to a strain from a previous outbreak associated with sun-dried tomatoes in the Netherlands. Neither of the patients had travelled to a country with a high risk of hepatitis in the previous three months and both had eaten ‘substantial’ amounts of sun-dried tomatoes.
Because some of the genetic strains of the virus found differed from the Netherlands outbreak, experts believe the contaminated sun-dried tomatoes may carry various strains of hepatitis A.
Previous hepatitis A outbreaks have been linked to sun-dried tomatoes, which have become an increasingly popular ingredient in middle class kitchens and favourite of TV celebrity chefs.
The virus is carried by human faeces and can be passed on through contaminated food or water, especially as a result of poor hygiene during the preparation of food.
It is the only common food-borne disease preventable by vaccine.
Symptoms appear around 28 days after infection and include aches, loss of appetite, abdominal discomfort, fever and fatigue. Patients may also develop itchy skin and jaundice which can last several months.
In the most serious cases, acute hepatitis A can develop into fulminant hepatitis A in which toxins attack the liver, leading to life-threatening complications.
Around half of these patients will need a liver transplant to survive.
Hepatitis A is diagnosed by a blood test, but there is no treatment other than rest and fluids.
Writing in the medical journal Eurosurveillance, Carlos Carvalho, of the HPA, said: ‘A single food source may be contaminated with more than one strain.
‘A food-borne outbreak with multiple strains in at least two European countries is suspected.’
A spokesman for the Food Standards Agency said: ‘Sun-dried tomatoes are being investigated as one possible source of the hepatitis A cases. However, no food source has been conclusively identified and no other relevant cases have been reported in the UK.’