Over 100 Students, School Staff Contract Mystery Illness in North Carolina

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Newman_050915The start of the school year has become much more complicated for more than 100 students and teachers in a North Carolina school district. All were sent home this week with vomiting, diarrhea, and fever.

Six staff and 84 students were from Person High School, and another 20 were from two nearby elementary schools. School officials are at a loss to identify a culprit, so they have reached out to the county health department and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). This is not North Carolina’s first encounter this year with a mysterious outbreak. In May, 160 students at Shiloh Elementary School had to stay home due to an unknown contagion.

Such types of outbreaks are actually fairly common. Many diseases share symptoms, so it can take time to rule out various potential culprits. For the students and teachers in the current outbreak, possible candidates are norovirus, enterovirus, or a food-borne illness like salmonella that had infected the district’s supplies.

In the case of Shiloh Elementary’s contagion this past May, norovirus was eventually determined to be the disease responsible. Norovirus is a highly contagious gastrointestinal disease that can be spread quickly by contaminated food or water, or even by simply touching an infected surface. It results in stomach inflammation and causes fever, diarrhea, vomiting, and stomach pain.

Some health officials believe norovirus is once again responsible, but it will take time to find out. There is no readily available test for the disease, so it requires a more thorough investigation to identify.

People in the area are advised to wash their hands regularly and to avoid those displaying signs of illness. Because some viruses are resistant to alcohol sanitizers, washing hand with soap and water is ideal. Person High School is expected to run classes as normal following a thorough overnight cleaning.

Sources for Today’s Article:
Foster, L., “Norovirus Was Cause of 174 Sickened at Union Co. School,” WSOCTV web site, May 28, 2015; http://www.wsoctv.com/news/news/local/45-students-absent-after-virus-outbreak-union-co-s/nmN2m/.
Miller, K., “Unknown Illness Strikes 100 Students in North Carolina: How Common Are ‘Mystery’ Outbreaks?” Yahoo! Health web site, September 3, 2015; https://www.yahoo.com/health/unknown-illness-strikes-100-students-in-1248951322124342.html?nf=1.