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Dozens denied hepatitis A shots in Victoria as demand exceeds supply

Apr 02 2012
VIHA manager Sandra Herbison (in tan jacket) explains to people in a long lineup outside the Victoria Health Unit on Cook Street that many would not be able to get their hepatitis A vaccinations on Sunday, April 1, 2012.  

VIHA manager Sandra Herbison (in tan jacket) explains to people in a long lineup outside the Victoria Health Unit on Cook Street that many would not be able to get their hepatitis A vaccinations on Sunday, April 1, 2012.

Photograph by: Adrian Lam, timescolonist.com

People’s fear of contracting hepatitis A from a local grocer turned into frustration Sunday when about 200 people were turned away from getting vaccinations.

Customers and employees of the Fairway Market deli on Quadra Street were urged to be immunized after a worker at the store tested positive for the virus last week.

Health officials held immunization clinics both Saturday and Sunday, urging everyone who ate at the deli on specific dates to get a shot to prevent even the slightest chance of spreading the illness.

About 110 doses were given out at the Victoria Health Unit on Cook Street on Saturday. By late Sunday afternoon, the remainder of the available 640 doses had been used, leaving many who had waited in line dissatisfied.

The lineup of people stretched from the front doors of the health unit, on Cook near Pembroke Street, to the intersection of Caledonia Avenue.

“A lot of people are not happy about it,” said one woman who stood in line for nearly two hours before being told the vaccine had run out. She did not want to her name to be publicized, but said “it’s not fair” that people were not told of the limited stockpile sooner.

“I had to get time off work today. They [her employer] didn’t even want to let me go … and now I have to come back again,” she said.

Colleen Emberly said she can’t remember the specific date of the last time she ate at the market’s deli. But with her cancer in remission, she wanted a vaccine in order to avoid any complications.

Emberly waited about 45 minutes and was inches away from the door when she was told the vaccine had run out.

“I don’t think they expected quite this many people to come out,” she said.

The Vancouver Island Health Authority had advised that anyone who ate food prepared in-store on March 18, 19, 20, 22, 25 or 26 to receive a hepatitis A vaccine as a precaution. Any food purchased from the deli during that time should be thrown out.

The alert does not apply to sushi, produce or foods purchased from other areas of the grocery store — Fairway Market store No. 11, located at 2635 Quadra St. — nor does it apply to the other nine Fairway Market stores in Victoria and on Vancouver Island.

VIHA said it will continue to offer immunizations to employees and customers at a drop-in clinic this week at the health unit at 1947 Cook St. It is to be open Monday to Thursday from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m.

Medical health officer Dr. Charmaine Enns said the public response was impressive, even though her staff did not expect so many people to show up.

“We don’t normally keep that much vaccine around for hepatitis A,” she said. “We didn’t really know how many to expect.”

Asahel Beaudet was one of the lucky ones to make the cut, just before the vaccine supply ran out Sunday.

“It was a pretty good turnout,” Beaudet said. “I think they underestimated how many people eat sandwich meat. I go there [Fairway Market] all the time. I figured if I didn’t get the vaccine and I got sick, I’d think: ‘Why didn’t I go?’ ”

VIHA officials said there is minimal risk of spreading the virus because Fairway strictly adheres to food safety regulations. Precautions, however, had to be taken.

“It becomes of interest to the public and to us when that [infected] person is a food handler, because then it’s not just that person’s circle of close contacts who is at risk. It’s the general public now at risk,” said Enns.

Chris Hernandez and Justine Sawyer were vaccinated late Saturday afternoon. The two shop regularly at the Quadra Village market and wanted to make sure they didn’t get sick.

“We go there all the time, so we just figured that we must have, at one point during that time, got something [from the deli],” Hernandez said after his immunization. “We just thought: ‘Better be safe than sorry.’ ”

Customers at the deli between March 7 and 15 also might have been exposed to the virus, which infects the liver, but the vaccine will no longer be effective for those people because too much time has passed, Enns said.

Fairway Market found out about the employee’s condition late Friday, two days after the store passed a health inspection, said store spokesman Robert Jay.

VIHA officials praised Fairway Market for its food safety practices, a statement echoed by deli employee Rachel Murphy. “We wear so many gloves our hands get extremely dry,” she said after getting immunized.

Enns said the incident is likely not related to an Island outbreak. The health authority has recorded about 90 cases of hepatitis A in the past 17 months, mostly in the Cowichan and Alberni valleys.

There is no treatment for hepatitis A, and the majority of people recover in about a month. The virus is found mostly in the stool of the infected person and is most often spread through direct contact or indirectly through contaminated food or water.

Symptoms include fever, tiredness, loss of appetite, nausea, vomiting and abdominal pain. This is followed by dark-coloured urine, light-coloured stools and jaundice (yellowing of the skin and eyes).

The health authority cautions people who develop any of these symptoms to stay home from work or school. There is a two-week period in which a person can carry the virus without symptoms, which allows it to spread undetected. Once a person has had jaundice for two weeks, they are no longer considered infectious.

dspalding@timescolonist.com

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