Local News

Health Officials Close In On Cause Of Illness Outbreak AT UNC

Posted January 23, 2004

— Officials from the Orange County Health Department and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill appear to be closing in on the reason why nearly 300 UNC students came to the school's

Student Health Service

in the last few days with symptoms of nausea, vomiting and diarrhea.

There were 285 cases -- 100 confirmed by SHS and 185 self-reported that were not confimed but had similar symptom.

Only eight students reported to acute care at Student Health Services on Friday, when SHS reported a significant decrease in visits for nausea, vomiting and diarrhea.

"It far surpasses our record for so many people in such a short time," said Dr. Mary Covington, of Student Health Services.

The source of the illness had not been determined Friday, though preliminary data suggested that the illness maybe food-borne. TOfficials said he rapid onset and short duration of the illness indicated a common source, but no specific location or specific food item had been identified as of Friday night.

Specimens have been sent to the State Public Health Lab. Results are not expected until sometime Monday.

What officials Friday called an outbreak began when several students came to SHS Tuesday night reporting the symptoms. Other students called overnight, and the bulk of the cases were reported Wednesday morning and afternoon.

All the students who had come in by Thursday had been treated and released from SHS.

When it became apparent that UNC health officials were seeing a significant number of cases, they called the Orange County Health Department, and a thorough investigation was launched.

As with all illnesses of an unknown source, UNC health officials questioned patients in great detail to determine possible sources of illness: descriptions of their diet histories, activities and location of their residences to attempt to identify common characteristics.

Orange County Health Department investigators developed a questionnaire. They also have followed up with the patients and, in some cases, the patients' roommates to gain additional information.

The university's Department of Environment, Health and Safety notified housekeeping staff and residential-life staff that day of the illnesses and gave them preventive steps they should follow to protect themselves and students from becoming ill from an unidentified source.

"We continue to jointly monitor this situation carefully," said Dr. Rosemary Summers, Orange County Health Department director. "Our investigation to date has not pinpointed any specific cause of these students' illnesses."

UNC residential-life officials implemented a "sweep" of all campus residence halls Wednesday to make sure students knew how to recognize symptoms of illness and how to contact SHS in the case of any symptoms that became serious.

SHS has established a special phone number,

(919) 966-6573

, that students may call to receive advice from a registered nurse.

"We have seen a marked decline in the numbers of students who have come to Student Health Service, and we hope to see those numbers decline further," Dr. Robert Wirag, SHS director, said. "Still, we would encourage students to take these symptoms very seriously and to not hesitate to see a medical provider if they become ill."

At all times, members of the campus community are encouraged to follow preventive steps in their daily activities, including:

  • Frequently washing their hands, especially after bathroom visits and before eating or preparing food.
  • Thoroughly clean and disinfect contaminated surfaces immediately after an episode of illness. Spray the area with a disinfectant cleaner, then clean with the disinfectant and disposable gloves. Cleanup waste should be placed in a plastic bag, which should be tied off and placed in the trash receptacle.
  • Immediately remove and wash clothing or linens that may be contaminated after an episode of illness.
  • Flush or discard any vomitus and-or stool in the toilet and make sure that the surrounding area is kept clean.
  • Prevent dehydration by drinking frequent sips of a non-alcoholic beverage.
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