Nearly 300 people might have been exposed to hepatitis A at a Hilton Head Island restaurant Feb. 15, but so far no cases stemming from the exposure have been confirmed, a S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control spokeswoman said Tuesday.
An employee at Hudson's Seafood House on the Docks tested positive for hepatitis A on Friday, six days after the employee had worked at the restaurant, DHEC spokeswoman Lindsey Evans said. She added that the employee might have exposed as many as 300 people to the virus, which causes inflammation of the liver.
Hudson's owner Brian Carmines said the employee was a server and had been traveling before returning to work Feb. 15. Evans said the employee had traveled to New Orleans.
The employee was later hospitalized and did not return to work, according to a DHEC news release Saturday. Carmines said the employee's prognosis was good and a complete recovery is expected.
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No information about how the employee contracted the virus has been released. Evans said Tuesday that was protected medical information. Carmines said the employee did not contract hepatitis A at the restaurant.
A Center for Disease Control and Prevention news release Tuesday said health codes and sanitary procedures in restaurants typically prevent the transmission of the hepatitis A virus, which can be spread by improper hand washing. Carmines said in the DHEC release that the restaurant had a long history of grade-A compliance ratings and safe food service.
The CDC still urged anyone who was at the restaurant from 4 p.m. until closing time Feb. 15 -- when the infected employee was working -- to contact their primary care provider to receive a single-dose vaccine no later than March 1.
The treatment must be administered within 14 days of possible exposure because people usually become sick within 15 to 50 days after being exposed, according to the DHEC release. Symptoms include fatigue, fever, loss of appetite, nausea, vomiting and abdominal pain, and those infected may also experience joint pain and jaundice.
Most patients recover completely within two months, but symptoms can persist for up to six months in severe cases, according to the CDC.
If hepatitis A vaccines are not available at a primary care provider, Evans said to call DHEC at 800-868-0404 to schedule an appointment at a local health department.
DHEC clinics in Beaufort County will provide hepatitis A vaccines by appointment this week; vaccines cost $52.30 for people who have health insurance, $25 for those without insurance and $13 for children.
The restaurant and DHEC were still working to contact customers and staff who may have been exposed to the virus. Carmines said the restaurant had received dozens of calls asking for DHEC's information phone line. Information about the possible exposure was also posted to the restaurant's website and Facebook page.
Carmines said the restaurant was also trying to track down people who used credit and debit cards at the restaurant Feb. 15, but were having difficulty working with the card companies.
"The companies won't release their personal information, but we're still pursuing it," he said. "People who paid with cash though, we have no trail at all."
The hepatitis A infection is relatively rare in the United States, with about 20,000 new cases reported to the CDC each year. Since 2003, there have only been 10 confirmed cases of hepatitis A in Beaufort County, Evans said.
Follow reporter Matt McNab at twitter.com/IPBG_Matt.