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North Dakota Catholics warned of possible hepatitis exposure from bishop during communion

The Cathedral of St. Mary in Fargo, N.D., is among five churches where worshipers may have been exposed to hepatitis A, state health officials say. Dave Wallis / Fargo Forum via AP, file

Hundreds of people may have been exposed to hepatitis A during communion at five North Dakota Catholic churches over the last few weeks after the newly ordained bishop of Fargo returned from Rome with the liver infection, church and state health officials said Friday.

"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 for the state Health Department.

The warning was issued to anyone who attended received communion at five churches in Fargo, Grand Forks and Jamestown on days when the new bishop, John Folda, attended:

  • A school mass at Holy Spirit Church, Fargo, Sept. 27.
  • A 10:30 a.m. mass at St. Michael's Catholic Church, Grand Forks, Sept. 29. 
  • A priests convention at St. James Basilica, Jamestown, Sept. 29 to Oct. 2.
  • The noon service at the Cathedral of St. Mary, Fargo, Oct. 6.
  • Mass at St. Paul's Catholic Newman Center, Fargo, Oct. 7.

Fargo and Grand Forks are two of the three biggest cities in North Dakota, about a quarter of whose population of 700,000 identifies as Catholic, according to the 2010 U.S. Religion Census, which is conducted every 10 years by Association of Religion Data Archives at Penn State University.

Hundreds of people would have attended the conference and services, but Howell said only those who showed symptoms should be tested for hepatitis A. 

Symptoms include fever, tiredness, loss of appetite, nausea, abdominal discomfort, dark urine, pale stools and jaundice, the Health Department said.

The Health Department began investigating when the Diocese of Fargo announced Monday that Folda is taking leave after having been diagnosed with hepatitis A through contaminated food while attending a conference for newly ordained bishops in Rome last month. Pope Francis appointed Folda to head the Diocese of Fargo in April.

Unlike the more serious hepatitis C, which can cause lifelong liver problems, the hepatitis A virus generally clears up within a few weeks. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is currently investigating a separate outbreak of hepatitis C in North Dakota, which it said was unrelated to the exposures at the five churches.

Matthew Kurtz, director of communications for the Diocese of Bismarck, said the state's Catholic institutions had already been vigilant during communion because of an outbreak of the H1N1 bird flu virus in 2009.

At that time, "both the Diocese of Bismarck and the Diocese of Fargo suspended the sign of peace and the sharing of the communion cup because there was a serious health concern," Kurtz told NBC station KVLY of Fargo.

Because North Dakota Catholics are allowed to pass up receiving the communion wafer and wine, "Catholic mass will continue," he said.

The alert is similar to one that was issued after potentially 7,500 worshipers were exposed to hepatitis A on Christmas Day 2010 at Our Lady of Lourdes Church in Massapequa Park, N.Y. Health officials also called that incident low-risk and offered vaccines to people who received communion.

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