By the end of this week, University Health Service hopes its
culture tests will reveal the identity of the contagion causing the
recent campus outbreak of viral gastroenteritis, often known as the
stomach flu.

Yet University doctors are already speculating that the cause of
the illness could be Norwalk virus — a common but highly
contagious disease that can easily spread through environments such
as college campuses.

UHS Director Robert Winfield said until the tests are completed
they will not be able to name the virus causing the illness, since
several diseases can result in gastroenteritis. But he added,
“Norwalk virus, now called norovirus, is certainly one
possibility.”

Norwalk virus is one of the diseases that are generally known
for causing the illness now spreading over the campus, according to
the Centers for Disease Control.

The virus causes symptoms of nausea, vomiting, diarrhea and
stomach cramping. With an incubation period of a few days, the
infection occurs through eating foods or coming into contact with
people or objects contaminated with the disease.

Winfield also said rotovirus, a virus similar to Norwalk virus,
may have caused the spread of gastroenteritis in the residence
halls.

Since Saturday, 13 new gastroenteritis cases were reported,
bringing the total number of cases to 83, said University Housing
spokesman Alan Levy.

One of the new cases was a student living in South Quad, a
residence hall that had not yet experienced any cases of the
disease. Levy said University Housing has already begun selective
cleaning procedures for the student at South Quad.

Although no tests have confirmed the presence of Norwalk
disease, epidemiology Prof. Arnold Monto explained the cause of the
disease probably came from a viral infection such as Norwalk, since
students who have the disease have not shown signs of experiencing
influenza-like symptoms.

Monto also said such outbreaks occurred on at the University in
previous years. In those cases, Norwalk disease was found to be the
cause.

During a study the University conducted on an outbreak a decade
ago, researchers discovered that the disease spread through
residence halls because dining services did not follow proper
procedures while preparing salads.

This led to the easy spread of the disease, causing the
contamination of the entire residence hall.

“Once it does start, it is hard to control. It can be
pretty wide scale,” Monto added.

Instead, students have only shown signs of gastroenteritis
infection, which can only come from a Norwalk-type infection, Monto
said.

“The stomach flu doesn’t do this. The flu is a
respiratory infection, while these infections involve the stomach
and intestines,” Monto added.

Moreover, the “stomach flu” is not an accurate term
for the virus, but it is just a name people use to describe
illnesses similar to the one students are contracting, he said.

Similar infections have also appeared on cruise ships, such as
in September. 2003, when 340 passengers became ill after coming in
contact with the virus.

Monto said it’s normal for the virus to appear in areas
where people are in constant contact with one another, such as
cruise ships and college campuses.

“Because dorms are semi-closed populations, if you get
anything to start up, it can transmit easily. It’s very easy
for extensive transmission,” he said.

While students living in certain residence halls may have to
deal with the disease for a few more weeks, to the majority of
students living off campus the news of the outbreak hasn’t
affected their living habits.

LSA senior Karandeep Singh who lives on Tappan Street, said,
“It really hasn’t affected non-residence hall students.
I’m not really afraid (of getting the disease) because off
campus hasn’t had a problem yet.”

The good news for students living in the residence halls is that
despite its ability to spread, the disease is not very serious and
the current outbreak is not uncommon, Monto said. He added that the
people who have the disease might feel extreme discomfort, but they
will be better in a few days.

As long as people keep washing their hands and food is handled
properly, he expects that the disease should subside in a few
weeks.

Until it sees conclusive data about the outbreak, the University
is continuing with its measures to prevent the spread of the
disease.

Levy said many students who were infected recovered over the
weekend, but only after three days of no new cases of the disease
will Housing halt the preventive measures in residence halls.

As for preventing future outbreaks, Levy said Housing can only
do so much and does not plan on making any changes to residential
hall procedures.

“It is a seasonal condition and comes from multiple
sources. So you can’t get rid of it permanently,” Levy
said.

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