The Vaccine Mandate Debate – But This One’s Not about COVID

On the back of the COVID-19 pandemic and the introduction of vaccination mandates for workers in certain industries, an international conversation has been stimulated on whether we should also mandate to protect consumers against other viruses.

Hepatitis A (HAV) is a significant threat to human health and is transmitted via the faecal-oral route when an infected person does not wash their hands after going to the toilet. Viruses on their hands can land on food they are handling and stay intact long enough to infect anyone eating it. The person transmitting the virus may not yet know they are infected because the incubation period for HAV is up to 50 days.

An outbreak in the U.S state of Virginia last year saw 51 people become infected after eating at one of three restaurants in the same chain. It was traced to a food server who had the virus and had worked at all three restaurants.

Of the people infected, 31 went hospital and three died. One had a liver transplant – a major operation with life-long consequences. For the restaurant chain, the consequences for their reputation were also serious and long-lasting.

Unlike in the US, the incidence of HAV infection in New Zealand is low. In 2020, 22 cases were reported, and 17 were hospitalised. But 2020 was an unusual year because of lockdowns. People often become infected while overseas.

As prevention is better than cure, especially when there is an effective vaccine available, there will be further debate among food safety scientists and regulators regarding mandating (free) vaccinations for HAV for all food service workers and food handlers, like fruit and berry pickers.

Director of the NZ Food Safety Science & Research Centre, Dr Catherine McLeod has noted that food safety regulators will have to consider whether broad vaccination is worth the cost. There is a danger it might lead to a false sense of security as there are several other food-borne diseases transmitted by the faecal-oral route, for which there are no vaccines.

As we are now seeing, getting agreement on vaccine mandates isn’t simple. And the practical ramifications in workplaces need to be fully understood. This is where science logic ends, and social science begins.

The best way of preventing transmission is scrupulous hand washing and drying after going to the toilet and before preparing food.