The largest hepatitis A outbreak in U.S. history has killed three people and infected some 500 others in Pennsylvania.
The disease was traced to a Chi-Chi's Mexican restaurant at a mall about 25 miles northwest of Pittsburgh, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC).
Health investigators are theorizing that contaminated produce –perhaps green onions – caused the outbreak. Hepatitis A is an infection of the liver. It can be spread by an infected person who handles food or utensils, or on uncooked foods.
In a public statement, CDC spokesperson David Daigle underscored that, while people shouldn't take the outbreak lightly, they shouldn't panic either. "We're very concerned. It's very serious and we've sent a team of people out there to assist," he said.
But the virus is not spreading to other restaurants in the state, emphasized health investigators.
It is the largest hepatitis A outbreak in U.S. history, Daigle said.
State officials were holding press conferences at malls and publicly buying and eating sandwiches over the weekend, trying to show their worried constituents that area food was safe.
The outbreak has already taken an economic toll on the area. The Beaver Valley Mall, where the outbreak originated, reported its food court sales were off by 40 percent, and general sales at the mall were down 25 percent.
The Chi-Chi's restaurant in the mall has been shut down. And Chi-Chi's restaurants at 100 locations have removed green onions from their kitchens, according to company reports.
If the source of the outbreak was green onions shipped into the restaurant, there is a chance that tainted food could have been sent to other places as well, stated Pennsylvania Health Secretary Calvin Johnson in a press conference.
A green onion-related hepatitis A outbreak occurred in Georgia and Tennessee in September. Some 200 people were infected.
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