Public health officials Tuesday issued an alert urging precautions against acute hepatitis A for the more than 3,500 people -- apparently including high-profile Sports Illustrated swimsuit models -- who appeared at recent events featuring food prepared by Wolfgang Puck Catering.
The Los Angeles County Department of Public Health acted after the Hollywood-based catering operation notified the agency that one of its prep cooks had been diagnosed with the communicable, but rarely fatal, disease.
County officials emphasized that they knew of no one connected with the Puck-catered events who had contracted acute hepatitis A other than the prep cook. They said he appeared to have largely recovered.
In addition, authorities said that guests of the catered events face little likelihood of contracting the disease. It is characterized by inflammation of the liver and is the least serious of the viral forms of hepatitis.
"The risk here is low," said Dr. Jonathan Fielding, the county director of public health. "Nonetheless, we felt it was appropriate to alert people."
Officials also emphasized that alert involved only 13 events -- from Feb. 3 to Feb. 20 -- that the infected prep cook worked on. The prep cook has not been involved with the Wolfgang Puck restaurant, cafe or prepared food divisions, and the alert does not apply to them. Fielding praised the catering company, which is partly owned by celebrity chef Wolfgang Puck, for its cooperation.
The highest-profile party among the 13 events was the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue bash Feb. 14 at the Pacific Design Center on Melrose Avenue in West Hollywood. According to the Sports Illustrated website, the party featured singer-actress Beyonce along with other models appearing in the magazine, including Marisa Miller and Veronica Varekova. A magazine spokesman said the models, along with other staff and guests, were being contacted about the health alert.
Officials declined to provide details about the other events subject to the alert, but said that most or all of them had been private parties and that they were getting in touch with the hosts and organizers to reach the people potentially affected.
Medical authorities were paying particular attention to four catered events, including the Sports Illustrated party, between Feb. 14 and Feb. 20. They are urging people who ate uncooked food at those events to receive shots of immune globulin, or IG, which can prevent the onset of the disease.
But the shots generally are ineffective for people exposed to the disease more than 14 days previously, so for those earlier party guests, officials are recommending that they visit their doctors if they show symptoms of hepatitis A.
Officials said many people who contract acute hepatitis A disease assume that it is no more than a bout of the flu. Symptoms include fever, chills, abdominal pain, vomiting, light-color diarrhea, dark urine and jaundice, indicated by yellowish skin and eye color.
Los Angeles County reported more than 400 cases of acute hepatitis A in each of the last two years but, since the mid-1990s, the disease has generally been in decline. Officials say that, barring a surprise outbreak, about 200 cases will be reported this year. According to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, well under 1% of cases are fatal.
County officials said members of the public may call (800) 427-8700 or just 211 for information on clinics providing IG shots. They urged people who may be affected to get the shots as soon as possible so that no more than two weeks pass after exposure to the disease.
The disease is spread by close physical contact and through fecal contamination of food and drink, officials said.