Douglas County health investigators have traced cases of hepatitis A in Nebraska and in two other states to a potential source: fresh, nonorganic blackberries that were on sale at Fresh Thyme stores between Sept. 9 and Sept. 30.

Adi Pour, director of the Douglas County Health Department, said health officials believe any contaminated berries now are off store shelves.

However, they’re advising anyone who bought berries fitting that profile and froze them for later use to dispose of them. Additionally, anyone who has eaten frozen berries matching that description in the past two weeks should contact their health care provider for preventive care. Freezing does not kill the virus.

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Pour announced 10 days ago that state and local officials were investigating a handful of cases in the Omaha metro area, with symptoms that began between Oct. 15 and Nov. 5. That meant patients had likely been exposed in mid-September.

However, health officials at the time had not identified a product or place connecting the individuals. They continued to work with state and federal agencies to try to find one.

The current tally stands at four cases in Douglas County, two elsewhere in Nebraska, three in Wisconsin and two in Indiana. Pour said she believes other cases that already have occurred also will be tied to those cases.

“Our epidemiology section played a crucial role in launching what has become a national investigation,” she said.

Health officials have not determined the source of the contamination, Pour said. That’s now in the hands of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which is better equipped to handle such work.

Pour said the contamination is “by no means” the fault of the grocery store chain but a problem somewhere in the supply chain. Fresh Thyme has cooperated fully with investigators.

Fresh Thyme officials said in a statement that they're working with local, state and federal agencies to identify their suppliers and isolate the source of the contamination.

"Fresh Thyme takes the health and safety of our customers and our team members very seriously," they said. "Fresh Thyme Farmers Market has a stringent process for ensuring compliance to all local, state and federal health and hygiene regulations."

The virus, which attacks the liver, can range in severity from a mild illness lasting a few days to a severe illness lasting several months. Symptoms can include fever, fatigue, loss of appetite, nausea, vomiting, joint pain and jaundice.

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Julie Anderson is a medical reporter for The World-Herald. She covers health care and health care trends and developments, including hospitals, research and treatments. Follow her on Twitter @JulieAnderson41. Phone: 402-444-1066.

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