TOPICS > Health

Bad Berries

April 2, 1997 at 12:00 AM EDT


JIM LEHRER: We go first tonight to the Hepatitis scare and to Charles Krause.

CHARLES KRAUSE: Federal officials are now attempting to determine how many people may have been exposed nationwide to the Hepatitis A virus and how to respond. One of the lead agencies is the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention in Atlanta. Its director, Dr. David Satcher, is here with us now.

Dr. Satcher, welcome.

DR. DAVID SATCHER. Centers for Disease Control & Prevention: Thank you.

CHARLES KRAUSE: You’ve reported about 150 cases from this batch of tainted strawberries so far. Tell me, how many children and adults are potentially at risk nationwide?

DR. DAVID SATCHER: It’s still very difficult. Let me say that we have determined that there were 13 lots of strawberries implicated in this outbreak, and so far six states have received those lots. Only one state has been able to give us definitive figures in terms of the numbers of children served these frozen strawberries, and that was Los Angeles County. And there they’re estimating that 9,000 children were served. The other states are still looking at their figures. Some of them, of course, the students have been on spring break, and they have not been able to get accurate figures, but clearly thousands of children could have been exposed to the frozen strawberries that were contaminated.

CHARLES KRAUSE: Now, California and Michigan were two of the states. What are the other four states where you know that these lots were sent?

DR. DAVID SATCHER: The other four states are Arizona, Georgia, Tennessee, and Iowa, where we know that these lots were distributed.

CHARLES KRAUSE: Now, should children in those states, in those six states anyway, should they all be immunized because they may have been–may have eaten some of these strawberries?

DR. DAVID SATCHER: We think that the best approach to this problem is to identify specifically those children who ate the frozen strawberries. In the cases where children consumed the frozen strawberries we’re recommending that they be given immune globulin. We know that if within 14 days after consuming the infected strawberries the children are given immune globulin, then we can protect them from the disease. I do want to point out, however, that we’re talking about a form of Hepatitis that is relatively mild.

CHARLES KRAUSE: All right. But if I’m a parent and I’m sitting at home right now, and I live in one of these states, how am I going to know whether the strawberries that you’re talking about were eaten by my child in school?

DR. DAVID SATCHER: I think we can only know that by working with the school districts, and that’s what we’re doing. In each state we’re tracing or tracking the lots of strawberries that were contaminated to find out which schools actually served their students the contaminated strawberries. And, again, I think we will be able to determine that fairly well. We have been able to do so in Los Angeles. Tennessee is working on their school district. Other schools will probably wait until people return from spring break.

CHARLES KRAUSE: But people should not run right out right now, people with children, and have their kids immunized?

DR. DAVID SATCHER: Definitely not. And, again, in dealing with Hepatitis A, we do not use vaccines for post exposure or treatment. We actually use immune globulin, and we strongly recommend that the immune globulin be reserved for those children who consumed the frozen strawberries. So I would not recommend that parents run out and have their children immunized.

CHARLES KRAUSE: All right. How does Hepatitis A spread? How do people get it?

DR. DAVID SATCHER: Well, there are various ways. It’s what we call fecal to oral contamination. And that’s in contrast to Hepatitis B and C, where primarily it’s spread through the blood and through sexual intercourse, with Hepatitis A we’re talking about generally hand-to-mouth contamination. So we also have a case where a food handler has the infection, and that food handler contaminates the food and it’s spread to people who eat at a given restaurant. In this case we believe that it was related to either the growing of the strawberries and harvesting of them, or the processing of the strawberries, because based on our case control studies we see no evidence that the handling of the strawberries at the particular schools in Michigan were responsible for the contamination.

CHARLES KRAUSE: Is there any curious, or from your perspective important or significant about the fact that only children in Michigan have come down with the disease?

DR. DAVID SATCHER: Well, I think it’s still very early, but the incubation period for this disease averages about 28 days. And we have determined that the children in Michigan were probably served the strawberries in February. And so it’s consistent with the incubation period. Hopefully, as it relates to California, the children who have been served the strawberries were actually served within the last two weeks, if not within the last week, which means that we have time to provide them with immune globulin and to protect them from infection.

CHARLES KRAUSE: Now, from what you know, the strawberries that were contaminated apparently were processed in San Diego. Did all of them go into the school lunch program, or were some of them sold to the public?

DR. DAVID SATCHER: Now, the Food & Drug Administration estimates that probably half, over half of the strawberries were sold privately, as opposed to going into the school lunch program. They also believe that most of them were used much earlier than the ones that are being used in the schools which means that it’s highly likely that most of those strawberries were consumed in the past but because of the way they were processed, in some cases pasteurized, or because of the fact that they were served to people who had immune, who were immune to Hepatitis A, we have not seen any major outbreaks of this disease.

CHARLES KRAUSE: But at the same time since you’re not quite sure where they went, should the general public stop buying frozen strawberries at this point? I mean, is this a concern that the public should have?

DR. DAVID SATCHER: Well, I think we should all have some concern, and what we have asked is for the distributors of the strawberries to have a general recall if they distributed any recently. So what we’re doing nationwide is making sure that there’s a recall of any contaminated strawberries. As far as the general public is concerned, if there’s any concern about frozen strawberries that they may have that they have acquired within the last several months, they should call their state health departments, or go back to the store where they consumed them to find out if these were part of the contaminated lot.

CHARLES KRAUSE: Very quickly, there’s some question about if these strawberries came from Mexico, were grown in the United States. Where did they come from? Do you know?

DR. DAVID SATCHER: It was reported earlier that they came from Mexico, but because there is an investigation taking place, and I understand from the United States Department of Agriculture that there are some laws about using strawberries from outside of the country in the school food program, so their inspectors are investigating this, and, therefore, I don’t want to comment on it while it’s being investigated.

CHARLES KRAUSE: Dr. Satcher, thank you very much for joining us.

DR. DAVID SATCHER: You’re quite welcome.