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WPXI News

Green Onions Blamed For Hep-A Outbreak
November 21, 2003

PITTSBURGH -- The State Health Department held a press conference at 11 a.m. Friday and announced the source of the hepatitis A outbreak as green onions. Officials now say the goal is to determine the cause of the contamination.

Friday, 35 new hepatitis A cases were confirmed, bringing the total number of cases to 575. Of those, 500 are from Pennsylvania, 390 are specifically from Beaver County and 75 are out of state, including West Virginia, South Carolina, Florida, Wyoming, and Wisconsin. However, there are no secondary cases reported in this outbreak.

CDC INVESTIGATORS EXPLORE DATA: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta is also hoping to pinpoint the source of the hepatitis outbreak. The CDC's seven investigators have been looking over the data they collected from the Beaver County Chi-Chi's. They are paying close attention to what customers ate. CDC lead investigator Beth Bell said, "In this case, (we asked) how often did they eat certain menu items, how often did they eat certain foods? Then we compare that to the frequency of those kinds of exposures or eating certain foods of those that didn't get sick." The focus for the source of the outbreak right now is on green onions, but all foods remain suspect. The only possible source scratched off the list so far is the restaurant's employees.

VANPORT CLINIC OPEN FRIDAY: Friday, the Pennsylvania State Health Department clinic will be open for anyone who needs an immunoglobulin shot. The clinic in Vanport, Beaver County, will be open from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.

FDA INSPECTS GREEN ONIONS AT BORDER: The Food and Drug Administration is inspecting green onions at the Mexican border. The agency halted trucks in Nogales, Ariz., Thursday bound for various markets across the U.S. Right now, only onions from three firms in Mexico are being banned. The FDA is looking into both foreign and domestic green onion suppliers. Dr. Javier Trujillo, the undersecretary for sanitary quality and food safety in the Mexican Ministry of Agriculture, said, "There is no final trace back (to) data linking Mexican exports to the issue." Trujillo said authorities from both the U.S. and Mexico have been working together to find the source of the outbreak.

HART CALLS FOR CONGRESSIONAL INVESTIGATION: Rep. Melissa Hart, who represents Beaver County, is urging the agencies involved in the investigation to act fast. Hart has sent letters to the director of the CDC and the commissioner of the FDA. "We sent a letter to the CDC, asking them to make this a priority because this is a frightening issue. People have died; three people have died. More and more people are infected, you hear (it) on the news every day," she said. Hart is also calling for a congressional investigation into whether the FDA's system of protecting our food is effective.

CHI-CHI'S BANKRUPTCY ISSUE: Meanwhile, Chi-Chi's is asking a bankruptcy judge to let it spend $500,000 to pay its liability insurance deductible. By doing so, the company would free up as much as $51 million in policies to settle lawsuits related to the outbreak. A local lawyer representing several victims said cases can now move forward.

Personal injury lawyer Regis McClelland said, "This is excellent news for victims now that there were initial concerns about bankruptcy and funds not being available to pay victims. Now that Chi-Chi's has made an effort to have this money available, now that there's insurance money available, they should be able to go ahead and pay some claims." Chi-Chi's filed for bankruptcy in October. Several major developments are expected Friday. Channel 11's crews will work to uncover all the late-breaking details and will have live team coverage starting tonight First at Five. Renee Wallisch, Becky Thompson and Rick Earle will have developments from Pennsylvania and Andy Gastmeyer will report from El Paso, Texas.

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