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Hepatitis A outbreaks in several states have brought attention to the debate on whether or not food service workers should be legally required to get the hepatitis A vaccine.

Recent outbreaks were connected with a Papa John’s restaurant in North Carolina and the La Fontana restaurant in suburban New York, reports Food Safety News.

“Hardly a month passes without a warning from a health department somewhere that an infected food handler is the source of yet another potential hepatitis A outbreak,” explains Food Safety News. “Absent vaccinations of food handlers, combined with an effective and rigorous hand-washing policy, there will continue to be more hepatitis A outbreaks. It is time for health departments across the country to require vaccinations of food-service workers, especially those who serve the very young and the elderly.”

Hepatitis A is spread from person-to-person or through food and water that’s been contaminated. It’s almost always a result of fecal-oral contact. And unlike all other foodborne illnesses, it’s the only one that can be prevented by vaccination. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention note that since the hepatitis A vaccine has become available, the rates of hepatitis A infections have decreased by 92 percent.

“CDC estimate that 83,000 cases of hepatitis A occur in the United States every year, and that many of these cases are related to food-borne transmission,” explains Food Safety News. “In 1999, more than 10,000 people were hospitalized due to hepatitis A infections, and 83 people died. In 2003, 650 people became sickened, four died, and nearly 10,000 people got IG (immunoglobulin) shots after eating at a Pennsylvania restaurant.”

But calling for mandatory vaccinations is highly controversial, particularly as the debate rages on about the safety of childhood vaccinations. Despite the lack of credibility surrounding a study claiming that vaccines are likely to be a major cause of autism spectral disorders, many people are opting out of vaccines altogether.

And while the CDC hasn’t asked for mandatory vaccinations for food service workers, the argument is gaining strength. “Hepatitis A continues to be one of the most frequently reported, vaccine-preventable diseases in the U.S., despite FDA approval of hepatitis A vaccine in 1995,” reports Food Safety News. “Widespread vaccination of appropriate susceptible populations would substantially lower disease incidence and potentially eliminate indigenous transmission of hepatitis A infections.”

Find Jill on Twitter @jillettinger

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Image: Lars Plougmann