Virginia Department of Health investigating several hepatitis A cases linked to Tropical Smoothie Cafe stores

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) Virginia health officials say several recent cases of hepatitis A may have been caused by frozen strawberries from a smoothie chain.

The Virginia Department of Health says testing indicates frozen strawberries from Egypt used at Tropical Smoothie Cafe stores may be to blame for the illnesses.

There are Tropical Smoothie Cafe stores on Prices Fork Road in Blacksburg and on Timberlake Road in Lynchburg.

Tropical Smoothie Cafe it stopped using strawberries from Egypt at all of its stores, including those outside Virginia, after learning about the potential issue. The smoothie chain says the cafes and their food handling practices "have not been implicated in any way."

Health officials are encouraging anyone who consumed a smoothie with frozen strawberries at a restaurant in the last 50 days to watch for symptoms of hepatitis A. Those include jaundice, fever, fatigue, loss of appetite and nausea.

Here is the news release from the Virginia Department of Health:

The Virginia Department of Health (VDH) is investigating a cluster of hepatitis A cases and has identified a potential association with smoothies from Tropical Smoothie Cafe restaurants in Virginia. Genetic testing shows the illnesses were caused by a strain of hepatitis A that has been associated with past outbreaks due to frozen strawberries from Egypt. Upon learning of the potential link to strawberries, Tropical Smoothie Cafe immediately conducted a voluntary product withdrawal of all strawberries sourced from Egypt and found an alternate supply.

Individuals who consumed a smoothie from a Tropical Smoothie Cafe in Virginia that contained frozen strawberries, on August 5, 6, 7 or 8, 2016, may still benefit from vaccine or immune globulin to prevent hepatitis A. If you have had hepatitis A or have been vaccinated for hepatitis A, you are already immune and therefore not at risk for getting the disease. Anyone who consumed a smoothie after the frozen strawberries were removed from restaurants is not thought to be at risk for hepatitis A.

Other restaurants, and firms that supply restaurants, may also have received the frozen strawberries imported from Egypt. VDH continues to investigate cases and work with state and federal partners, including the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, to identify additional locations where the product may have been distributed.

Anyone who consumed a smoothie with frozen strawberries at a restaurant within the last 50 days is encouraged to watch for symptoms of hepatitis A. If illness occurs, seek medical care and take steps to protect others from the infection.

Hepatitis A is an inflammation of the liver caused by the hepatitis A virus. The classic symptom of hepatitis A is jaundice, which is a yellowing of the skin or the eyes. Other symptoms of hepatitis A include fever, fatigue, loss of appetite, nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, dark urine and light-colored stools. Symptoms develop 15-50 days after exposure to the virus, which can occur through direct contact with another person who has the infection or by consuming food or drink that has been contaminated with the virus.

Frequent handwashing with soap and warm water after using the bathroom, changing a diaper, or before preparing food can help prevent the spread of hepatitis A.

It is very important for people who have symptoms of hepatitis A to stay home from work, especially if they work in food service.

Routine vaccination against hepatitis A has reduced the risk of this disease in the past decade. Vaccination is available to anyone, but specifically recommended for all children, for travelers to certain countries, and for people at high risk for infection with the virus. Hepatitis A vaccine is available from health care providers (including some pharmacies and travel clinics) to protect against this disease.