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Students who got hepatitis likely shared food

Tuesday, December 16, 2003

By Christopher Snowbeck, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Two students at a Beaver County high school likely contracted hepatitis A by sharing food at lunch or in the hallways with another infected student, a South Side Area School District official said today.

The two students are among the first 10 secondary cases of hepatitis A that have been traced to an outbreak at the Beaver Valley Mall Chi-Chi's. Those secondary cases were announced by the state Department of Health yesterday.

More than 600 people have been infected by virtue of eating at the restaurant when scallions contaminated with hepatitis A were served. But those with secondary cases apparently contracted the virus from one of the sick.

"The link in this case, to the best of our knowledge ... is an individual who was infected -- and who may not have even known it at the time -- shared food with another student," said Superintendent Robert A. Del Greco. "It's what most people would think of as a benign act: Friends who might share french fries, or a sip from a water bottle or pop can."

There is no evidence that implicates the school district's facilities, food preparation process or food service as the source of the recently identified cases, the district stated in a news release.

Until further notice, South Side Area School District has limited all classroom snacks and treats to those that are commercially prepared and packaged.

Hepatitis A virus is spread through fecal matter, not saliva. But someone with dirty hands who handles the mouth of a cup, can or bottle can leave behind material that is then ingested by the friend who shares the drink, said Richard McGarvey, spokesman for the state Health Department. Another scenario is a dirty-handed person with the virus handles a sandwich, and then passes it on to a friend, who unknowingly consumes material on the bread.

The spread suggests the broader challenge of teaching adolescents about the importance of good personal hygiene, McGarvey said.

"Certainly the younger the age, the thought's not on hygiene," he said. "Friends are friends and sometimes you share things. But sometimes you can share more than you want."

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