Catholics who receive communion at Sunday mass believe the sacred wafer they swallow contains the body of Christ. New York health officials have warned the parishioners of a Long Island church that the wafers they received on Christmas Day may have also contained hepatitis A.
The Nassau County Department of Health in New York is warning parishioners who attended Christmas Mass at Our Lady of Lourdes Church in Massapequa Park to seek treatment, worried that the hundreds who took communion could fall ill.
Those who attended the 10:30 a.m. and noon Masses are most likely to be at risk, according to the health department.
While no individuals who attended the Masses have reported illness, MaryEllen Laurain, a spokesperson for the county's department of health, said vaccines will be offered as a "preventative measure."
Hepatitis A, a liver disease, is contracted by putting something in your mouth that has been contaminated with fecal matter from an infected person. It is frequently spread when an infected person fails to wash his or his hands after using the toilet.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, consuming food that has been handled by an infected individual is one of the most common ways of contracting the disease.
The potential outbreak at Lady of Lourdes Church may have been caused by a church leader who was infected by the disease and then handled the wafers distributed to churchgoers.
Sean Dolan, the spokesman for the diocese that oversees the church, did not immediately return messages left by ABCNews.com.
In an interview with Newsday, Dolan said, "It was probably a full church" of the services, but did not estimate how many of the church's 7,500 parishioners may have been in attendance at the two services.
"We don't want to jump to conclusions," Dolan told the paper. "Obviously, it's very concerning when there's potential exposure to any sort of virus."
On the diocese's website a message read, "We pray that no one comes down with this virus."
Because the disease is highly contagious at it's peak -- usually 10 days before the patient notices symptoms and seeks medical attention -- doctors and hospitals must report any patient who is diagnosed with the infection. The health department must then notify anyone who may have been in contact with the individual.
Signs of infection include severe diarrhea, nausea, fatigue and sometimes jaundice, a yellowing of the eyes and skin. There is no antibiotic treatment, and those who get it must let it run its course, which usually takes about a month.
As of 2006, children have been routinely vaccinated against the different strains of hepatitis, but adults have not necessarily received the precautionary vaccine. Those who have been vaccinated do not need to take further action.
A few years ago, the high-profile New York City club "Socialista" made headlines when a bartender was hospitalized for hepatitis A was discovered to have served several A-list celebrities, prompting a warning by the New York City Department of Health.