While the food we eat in Canada is generally very safe, sometimes it may carry viruses that can make us sick, like Hepatitis A virus.
What is Hepatitis?
Hepatitis is a disease that can cause inflammation of the liver. There are many causes of hepatitis, both infectious and non-infectious.
Infectious hepatitis can be caused by several different Hepatitis viruses. The most common in Canada are A, B and C, though of these three, only Hepatitis A can be transferred through contaminated food and water.
Hepatitis A can range in severity from a mild illness lasting a few weeks to a severe illness lasting several months. You can get the Hepatitis A virus by eating contaminated food or water or through contact with an infected person's feces (stool).
How do people get sick?
Hepatitis viruses are spread from person to person through contact with infected feces (stool), either directly (like when diapering an infected person) or indirectly (through food that was handled by someone who did not wash their hands). People can carry the virus without showing symptoms, then spread it to other people, foods or surfaces.
People can get Hepatitis A after eating contaminated food and beverages. Food and drinks can become contaminated through:
- a contaminated food handler
- hands that were not washed properly after using the washroom
- contamination during harvest, manufacturing and processing
Common food sources of Hepatitis A include:
- contaminated water
- raw or undercooked shellfish
- raw fruits and vegetables
What are the symptoms and treatment?
Children often do not show symptoms of Hepatitis. Ten to fifteen percent of people who do not show symptoms can still carry the disease for up to six months.
People infected with Hepatitis A can have a wide range of symptoms. Some do not get sick at all, though they can still spread the infection to others. Others may experience symptoms like fatigue and jaundice.
Most people with Hepatitis A develop the following symptoms two to seven weeks after being infected with the virus:
- loss of appetite
- stomach cramps
- jaundice (yellowing of the skin and eyes)
- dark urine
Symptoms are usually mild, and the illness usually lasts one to two weeks. Although severe cases can last several months, most people recover without treatment. It is rare for healthy adults to die from Hepatitis A, and the illness does not become chronic. For pregnant women, Hepatitis A is more serious and can be fatal, particularly for women in their third trimester.
There is currently an approved vaccine for Hepatitis A. If you are immune to the Hepatitis A (because you already had the virus and your body now has a resistance to it, or you have been vaccinated), this will last your entire life.
How do I avoid getting sick?
These tips will help protect you and your family from Hepatitis A:
- Wash your hands after using the washroom and changing diapers, and before preparing or eating food.
- When travelling, especially to developing countries:
- drink water from a safe supply (commercially bottled carbonated water or boiled water)
- avoid ice cubes in drinks
- eat only freshly cooked food
- avoid non-peelable raw fruit or vegetables
- Talk to your doctor about getting a Hepatitis A vaccination before travelling.
- Cook food to a safe internal temperature using a digital thermometer.
- If you think that you have been exposed to the Hepatitis A virus, see your doctor immediately. Vaccination can prevent the onset of symptoms if given within two weeks of exposure.
- If you have been diagnosed with Hepatitis A, or any other gastrointestinal illness, do not prepare food or pour water for other people.
Also, these safe food practices will reduce your risk of contracting Hepatitis A and other foodborne illnesses.
What does the Government do to protect me?
In Canada, several government organizations work together every day to keep your food safe:
- Health Canada makes food safety standards and policies to help minimize the risk of foodborne illnesses.
- The Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) enforces these policies and standards and carries out inspections to make sure the food industry meets its food safety responsibilities. The CFIA works with Health Canada to make sure that foodborne illness is detected early and warnings go out to the public quickly.
- The Public Health Agency of Canada studies the incidence and causes of diseases in Canada, conducts outbreak surveillance, and coordinates outbreak response.
The Government of Canada works very hard to protect your health and safety:
- We are carrying out a five-year Food and Consumer Safety Action Plan, to strengthen and modernize Canada's safety system and make sure you can have confidence in the quality and safety of the food, health and consumer products you buy.
- We are investing $75 million more in Canada's food safety system (on top of the $113 million committed in 2008) to hire more inspectors, update lab technology, and improve communication with Canadians.
- We support and participate in public awareness campaigns about safe food practices, like the Canadian Partnership for Consumer Food Safety Education's Be Food Safe program, which encourages Canadian consumers to think of food safety at every step of the food handling process, from shopping for groceries to re-heating leftovers.
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