BALTIMORE - Twenty-four people have been sickened in a hepatitis A outbreak linked to three southern Maryland restaurants, and the virus appears to be spreading, health officials said.
Five students were diagnosed with the disease at two Baltimore elementary schools, city health officials said Friday.
''We believe very strongly it's not related to the (school) cafeterias at all, it's related to the community from which the kids came,'' City Health Commissioner Peter Beilenson said.
Health officials sent letters home with students asking parents to review proper hygiene procedures.
To fight the highly contagious virus, public health workers are offering immune globulin injections for people who ate at the restaurants over the Labor Day weekend. The injections can prevent people exposed to the virus from becoming infected. Symptoms usually don't appear until two weeks after infection.
Hepatitis A is not considered deadly, but it can trigger harsh symptoms including fever, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea and jaundice. The virus has no cure, but most sufferers recover on their own.
It is most commonly spread through food handling but can also spread among people who live together, have sexual contact or inject drugs.
A man who worked at two of the restaurants - Catamarans on Solomons Island and the Roost in Lexington Park - tested positive for the virus on Aug. 17. An acquaintance of his who worked at another restaurant, Northridge in California, Md., tested positive on Sept. 7.
Twenty-four people have tested positive for the virus, and at least two more are showing symptoms, health officials said.
On the Net:
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention hepatitis information: http://www.cdc.gov/ncidod/diseases/hepatitis/index.htm