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Fargo Catholics exposed to Hepatitis A virus during communion

FARGO -- The Fargo Catholic Diocese's new bishop may have exposed hundreds of church members here and in Jamestown to the hepatitis A virus in late September and early October.

The North Dakota Department of Health issued an advisory of exposure Thursday for anyone who attended church and had communion at the following churches:

-- Holy Spirit Church, Fargo, on Sept. 27.

-- Cathedral of St. Mary, Fargo, on Oct. 6.

-- St. Paul's Catholic Newman Center, Fargo, on Oct. 7.

-- St. James Basilica, Jamestown, from Sept. 29 to Oct. 2.

"The risk of people getting hepatitis A in this situation is low, but the Department of Health felt it was important for people to know about the possible exposure," said Molly Howell, immunization program manager.

The diocese announced Monday that Bishop John Folda is taking some time off after being diagnosed with hepatitis A. The diocese said he contracted the infection through contaminated food while attending a conference for newly ordained bishops in Italy last month.

The Health Department began its investigation after hearing that Folda was diagnosed with hepatitis A, said Aliceyn Magelky, director of communication for the Fargo Diocese. Howell could not comment on the specifics of its investigation.

Pope Francis appointed Folda, an Omaha Neb., native, bishop of Fargo in April. He was ordained June 19.

Magelky said as a newly ordained bishop, Folda has been traveling extensively.

The hepatitis A virus causes liver infection and is easily spread if people do not wash their hands thoroughly after using the restroom or changing a diaper or soiled sheets, then touch their mouths, prepare food or touch others with contaminated hands.

Exposed individuals are encouraged to consult their health care provider only if they develop symptoms of hepatitis A.

Symptoms include fever, tiredness, loss of appetite, nausea, abdominal discomfort, dark urine, pale stools and jaundice, according to a Health Department news release.

Although rarely deadly, the virus can cause serious illness, Howell said.

It is not recommended that people get tested if they were exposed but do not have symptoms.

There have been six cases of hepatitis A in North Dakota this year. There were two in 2012, Howell said.

The number of congregation members exposed to the virus was not available.

Folda has been out of the office due to illness since Oct. 10, but he is on the mend, Magelky said.

"He has improved greatly," she said. "He is doing just fine; he is slowly getting back to his regular schedule."

Magelky said the diocese issued pulpit announcements to each of the churches listed in the health department's news release. She said they were likely included in the warning because Folda attended Mass those days and would have participated in communion distribution.

Communion is a Christian ritual in which congregation members eat bread and drink wine (sometimes grape juice), based on the belief it is or represents the blood and body of Jesus. There are many variations of how the foods are distributed among churches and denominations. For instance, at some churches all members may drink from the same chalice of wine, while other churches may give individual servings.

Magelky said she is not certain what practice the churches involved in the warning use.

Howell said regardless of how the food was administered, the food could have been contaminated during preparation.