Colorado: Disease Detectives Help Solve Dangerous Mystery

In 2013, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE), the New Mexico Department of Health, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention worked together to uncover and respond to a large outbreak of hepatitis A. Preventive Health and Health Services (PHHS) Block Grant funds helped pay for the data systems that public health workers used to quickly detect and respond to this disease emergency.

Hepatitis A is a virus often spread through food. It causes liver swelling and extreme stomach pain. It can often be prevented by giving people a shot of hepatitis A vaccine within 14 days of the time they came into contact with the virus.

In May 2013, public health workers in Colorado identified a case of hepatitis A in a flight attendant. CDPHE worked with local public health authorities to determine whether certain passengers needed shots to keep them from getting sick. At the same time, the New Mexico Department of Health identified two hepatitis A cases in their state. They joined Colorado in working to stop the outbreak.

Disease detectives and public health nurses quickly discovered that the source of this outbreak was unsafe food. CDPHE worked with a large warehouse store chain to obtain purchase records for people who were sick to determine what foods they had all eaten. They found that the source was Turkish pomegranate seeds in a frozen berry blend. The Food and Drug Administration then worked to identify any other foods that contained the unsafe fruit. This investigation led to a nationwide product recall.

CDPHE and local public health agencies discovered the outbreak, identified the source, and told the public about the unsafe product in only 11 days. Unlike previous hepatitis A outbreaks, this 11-day alert was enough time for others to get the vaccine and prevent illness. Overnight, CDPHE prepared to give shots to all people who had come into contact with the virus, giving more than 400 shots in the following days. Ultimately, only 29 Colorado residents got sick from this outbreak.

This was the first known time that a hepatitis A food source was identified quickly enough for vaccines to be given before everyone who ate the food item got sick.

Story year: 2015

Photo: Pomegranate seed

Pomegranate seeds like these were the source of a hepatitis A outbreak in 2013.

Page last reviewed: April 17, 2018