Confession- I have eaten the berries and am alive and well. The recall of frozen berries linked to cases of hepatitis A (note at time of writing there had not been any of the virus actually found in the berries) is the latest in a long unimpressive line of health scares. It is very important to state up front that the illness is not pleasant but it is not fatal and many people are so mildly affected that they do not even go to the doctor.
So what do the numbers tell us?
It was estimated that 70,000 packs a week are sold. Out of a country of 23 million people it was thought that 450,000 might have consumed berries. From this there have been 12 cases. There may be more cases come to light over the next few weeks but even if this number increases one hundred fold, it still would only represent 0.2% of them who had eaten them.
The recall of the products was completely correct. Yet this is not a major threat to the health of the population. The response of health departments has been generally straight from the script. To the credit of the Federal Health department they said that less than one in one hundred people who ate the berries might be at risk. Generally the risk is played up.
But of course we had to have the usual scare with one professor telling the media that Hepatitis A was not a “trivial” illness and could be fatal. Unless you get run over by a truck whilst you have it or there are some other factors involved, hepatitis A is not a fatal illness.
For the vast majority it is a trivial illness. It causes symptoms of gastroenteritis with nausea, perhaps vomiting, diarrhoea, and tiredness. For some there may be headache, body aches and stomach cramps. In the worst cases there may be jaundice (a yellowing of the eyes and skin). For most the illness will last a few days. A small number may be unwell for a couple of weeks,
Many will have symptoms so mild that they do not seek medical attention. On this basis there may be more cases than actually get recorded but if it is so mild, then what of it?
I am often asked if the media are to blame for beating these stories up. The media is the messenger. If health departments and public health professors give a good scare story the media will report it. If there is any criticism to be leveled at the media it is that they are not questioning enough of claims made by those in “officialdom”.
The trend to beat up minor illness into something is not unique. An article on the Chicago Tribune warns that indigestion or heartburn may not be a “minor” illness. One doctor says he advises everyone over 40 to have a gastroscope (where a tube is placed down the throat to look into the stomach).
Really? Good for business if you are a gastroenterologist but otherwise it is a recipe for over diagnosis and needless tests.
Beware the current trend to make every minor illness into something serious. Keep in mind that people have never lived longer and that life expectancy continues to increase.
And if there is a take home lesson from the berries it is to read packs and to know where your food comes from. The recalled packs stated that they were packed in China.
The information is out there.