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Onions Blamed For Deadly Virus

November 21 2003

BEAVER, Pa.,—Tainted green onions were the likely source of the biggest known outbreak of hepatitis A in U.S. history, Pennsylvania health officials said Friday.

Three people have died and at least 575 people have fallen ill over the past few weeks after going to a now-closed Chi-Chi’s Mexican restaurant.

John Spratt, who worked at a payroll processing company, fell ill after having the chicken fajitas with his 17-year-old daughter on Oct. 5 at the restaurant in the Beaver Valley Mall, about 25 miles from Pittsburgh.

His daughter did not get sick, apparently because she did not eat all the condiments that came with the fajitas.

By Oct. 25, Spratt was feeling fine and thought he had gotten over the flu or whatever it was, his brother said. But on Nov. 3, the very day the state Health Department announced the outbreak, Spratt was hospitalized with severe dehydration and abdominal pains.

He expected to be out in a few days. But the next night, he went into liver failure. Spratt, a devout Christian family man, spent his last 10 days heavily medicated, never able to say goodbye to his wife, Robin, and daughters, Jacqueline, 17, and Kristen, 12.

“We were told he could hear us, and if you talked to him there’d be a little flutter of the eyebrow or a soft squeeze of the hand, but that’s about it,” brother Joseph Spratt said.

The three deaths have shocked western Pennsylvanians, because health authorities have been saying that hepatitis A is usually not fatal and normally runs its course in a few weeks after causing such symptoms as fever, jaundice, nausea and abdominal pain.

State Health Department spokesman Richard McGarvey said there does not appear to be anything surprising statistically about this outbreak. The fatality rate for hepatitis A is one to three deaths per 1,000 cases, though it rises to 18 per 1,000 for those over 50, and higher for those with chronic liver problems, McGarvey said.

Dineen Wieczorek, a 51-year-old diabetic, died at a hospital Nov. 12 while awaiting a liver transplant because of damage done by the virus. A customer service representative at an Ikea store, she had eaten at Chi-Chi’s on Oct. 6 for her 32nd wedding anniversary.

Jeff Cook, 38, a laid-off auto-body restorer, died Nov. 7 of liver failure, shortly after receiving a transplant because of the virus. The coroner is investigating whether acetaminophen Cook took for his symptoms contributed to his death, because overuse of the pain reliever can cause liver damage.

Others are struggling to recover from the disease.

Kim and Jim Hite took the virus with them on vacation. They ate taco salads at Chi-Chi’s on Oct. 4 and Jim Hite became ill about two weeks later, while the couple were celebrating their 10th wedding anniversary in Florida.

Kim Hite said she has lost 25 to 30 pounds and her husband has lost 40 to 50.

Louisville, Ky.-based Chi-Chi’s has asked a bankruptcy court for permission to pay a $500,000 deductible to free up as much as $51 million in insurance to settle claims by sickened customers and employees. The request was filed Wednesday.

Elsewhere, O’Charley’s restaurants disclosed in a filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission, that two restaurants in Georgia were part of a hepatitis A outbreak in the Southeast linked to green onions.

It was the first time the Nashville-based restaurant chain acknowledged its involvement in the Georgia illnesses.

At least 10 people got the virus after eating at O’Charley’s restaurants in Centerville and Macon, Ga., the company said.

There also were 81 cases of hepatitis A reported in Tennessee among diners at an O’Charley’s restaurant in Knoxville. One man died after contracting the illness.

Up to 35,000 cases of hepatitis are reported annually in the United States. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one third of Americans have evidence of past infection to the disease, meaning they are immune.

The Marler Clark Network