Key Role of Sequencing to Trace Hepatitis A Viruses Circulating in Italy During a Large Multi-Country European Foodborne Outbreak in 2013

PLoS One. 2016 Feb 22;11(2):e0149642. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0149642. eCollection 2016.


Background: Foodborne Hepatitis A Virus (HAV) outbreaks are being recognized as an emerging public health problem in industrialized countries. In 2013 three foodborne HAV outbreaks occurred in Europe and one in USA. During the largest of the three European outbreaks, most cases occurred in Italy (>1,200 cases as of March 31, 2014). A national Task Force was established at the beginning of the outbreak by the Ministry of Health. Mixed frozen berries were early demonstrated to be the source of infection by the identity of viral sequences in patients and in food. In the present study the molecular characterization of HAV isolates from 355 Italian cases is reported.

Methods: Molecular characterization was carried out by PCR/sequencing (VP1/2A region), comparison with reference strains and phylogenetic analysis.

Results: A unique strain was responsible for most characterized cases (235/355, 66.1%). Molecular data had a key role in tracing this outbreak, allowing 110 out of the 235 outbreak cases (46.8%) to be recognized in absence of any other link. The data also showed background circulation of further unrelated strains, both autochthonous and travel related, whose sequence comparison highlighted minor outbreaks and small clusters, most of them unrecognized on the basis of epidemiological data. Phylogenetic analysis showed most isolates from travel related cases clustering with reference strains originating from the same geographical area of travel.

Conclusions: In conclusion, the study documents, in a real outbreak context, the crucial role of molecular analysis in investigating an old but re-emerging pathogen. Improving the molecular knowledge of HAV strains, both autochthonous and circulating in countries from which potentially contaminated foods are imported, will become increasingly important to control outbreaks by supporting trace back activities, aiming to identify the geographical source(s) of contaminated food, as well as public health interventions.

MeSH terms

  • Amino Acid Substitution
  • Contact Tracing*
  • Disease Outbreaks*
  • Europe
  • Genetic Variation
  • Genotype
  • Hepatitis A / epidemiology*
  • Hepatitis A / transmission
  • Hepatitis A / virology*
  • Hepatitis A virus / genetics*
  • Humans
  • Italy
  • Phylogeny
  • Risk Factors
  • Sequence Analysis, DNA
  • Spatio-Temporal Analysis
  • Viral Structural Proteins / genetics


  • VP1 protein, hepatitis A virus
  • Viral Structural Proteins

Grant support

The authors have no support or funding to report.