Roughly 2,000 people who ate at the restaurant on one of the eight days in late July and early August when the server was on duty have reportedly already received a vaccine.
“The most important thing right now is to get anybody that was present in the restaurant during those dates vaccinated,” a local health official told the Fayetteville Observer on Tuesday. “That’s the No. 1 priority.”
Although the odds that the exposed diners contracted hepatitis A at the restaurant are slim, infection is a very real possibility, says Arun K. Bhunia, PhD, a professor of food science at Purdue University, in West Lafayette, Ind.
“Any time a food handler or server is infected, that individual can spread the virus to food when they’re serving,” he says. “If I’d gone to that restaurant, I would be concerned.”
The hepatitis A virus is usually spread through food contaminated with fecal matter. Restaurant patrons can be exposed if a cook or server doesn’t wash his or her hands properly after using the restroom, for instance.
Though complications can occur, hepatitis A is much less serious than hepatitis B or C and generally clears up on its own within about eight weeks. Most people recover completely from hepatitis A, while B and C are more likely to leave lasting liver problems.
The vaccine takes about two weeks to offer any protection, and symptoms, if they do appear, usually show up within four weeks. (Administering a vaccine after exposure is known as postexposure prophylaxis.) So anybody who may have been exposed at the Fayetteville Olive Garden before July 25 is probably out of luck, Bhunia says.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends the vaccine for all children at 12 months. Adults who travel to countries with high rates of hepatitis A, work with people or animals with the virus, or have long-term liver disease are also encouraged to get vaccinated.
Thanks to the vaccine—and careful hand-washing—cases are down 90% over the last 20 years, according to the CDC.
Nevertheless, hepatitis A scares in restaurants remain a little too common for comfort. Just this week, in fact, diners at a Vancouver steakhouse were warned of possible hepatitis A exposure after the chef tested positive for the virus while prepping for a kidney operation.
“This happens at least once or twice a year,” Bhunia says.
Other troubling incidents in recent memory include: