Norovirus hits state

by Laura Gomez / Beacon Staff • March 1, 2012

On the heels of a report by the Massachusetts Department of Public Health (MDPH) announcing an increase in norovirus outbreaks across the state, the Emerson Center of Health and Wellness is monitoring the number of cases at the college, said director of the center Jane Powers.

Students, faculty, and staff were notified of the gastrointestinal illness in an email on Feb. 17, describing typical symptoms and preventative measures. 

“We are monitoring self reports, ER transports and appointments,” said Powers. “We have not seen any pattern or high incidence to suggest an ‘outbreak’ on campus. Our monitoring data indicates about the same level of GI related illness as the same time period in the spring semester of 2011.”

But Massachusetts health officials see a different trend throughout the state.

Patricia Kludt, senior manager of the Epidemiology Program of the MDPH, said norovirus is a disease that in Massachusetts is reported to and tracked by the MDPH.

“Every year we do our numbers from January first through mid-February. Right now we have a total of 118 outbreaks,” she said, further stating that 20 of these outbreaks are reports that come from schools, day cares, colleges, and universities.

According to Kludt, in 2011 the MDPH registered 63 outbreaks, and in 2010, 33 outbreaks were reported.

One outbreak, Kludt said, represents one place where multiple individual cases of norovirus have been detected.

She said each one of the 118 places that reported an outbreak have at least ten people infected with the virus.

“So there are at least a thousand people who are sick with norovirus, and probably ten times that amount, or forty times that amount. This is just the tip of the iceberg,” Kludt said. 

The report by the MDPH said noroviruses are a group of particularly strong viruses that cause nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and acute abdominal cramps. The email sent to students, Powers said, was a precautionary measure.

“The purpose of the notice was to educate the Emerson community of the incidence within the city and to take proactive steps to minimize risk of infection,” said Powers in an email to the Beacon.

Eric Wahl, a junior marketing communication major and member of Emerson’s basketball team, contracted the virus. He said he woke up to severe stomach pains, and once he made his way to the bathroom, he began to vomit profusely, he said.

According to the website of the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, symptoms usually last 24 to 72 hours. Yet noroviruses are highly contagious and outbreaks are common because of the ease of transmission.

Wahl said Mandy Nicoles, the head athletic trainer, was told about his situation and knew right away that he was infected with the norovirus. 

Nicoles advised Wahl to stay in one place to prevent the virus from spreading, said Wahl.

According to the MDPH fact sheet on noroviruses, the virus is usually spread by eating or drinking contaminated food or drinks, or by close contact with an infected person.

“The main issue is that a lot of our athletes live together and practice together, so the virus is more easily transmitted,” said Nicoles.

Because norovirus could affect the student’s athletic performance and the ability for teams to compete, Nicoles said her staff is taking diligent measures to prevent norovirus from spreading.  

According to Nicoles, the locker rooms were extensively cleaned, and the water bottles provided to the student athletes are sterilized with a disinfectant solution multiple times a day.

“We were able to contain it pretty quickly,” she said.

Nicoles said that she is in close communication with the Center for Health and Wellness about the progression of the cases.

Powers said additional communication will be issued to the community if there is an increase in confirmed cases of norovirus.

Boston University’s Director of Student Health Services David McBride said in an email to the Beacon that so far no cases of norovirus have been reported on the campus.

Richard Arnold, director of Health and Wellness Services of Suffolk University, said gastrointestinal illness cases are reported all year round, and that there hasn’t been any significant increase of reports in the past weeks.

“The reaction to norovirus is pretty severe, a lot of vomiting and diarrhea, and that is why it gets the attention it gets,” said Arnold.