February 15, 2012

Cases of Norovirus Appear to be Decreasing on Princeton and Rider Campuses

A recent outbreak of what appears to be norovirus, a gastrointestinal flu, is keeping Princeton and Rider University cleaning crews busy.

“Since January 29, we have seen a total of about 140 students with symptoms of gastroenteritis,” reported Princeton University Spokesperson Martin A. Mbugua at the beginning of the week. “The University has taken a number of measures to try to contain the spread of illness, including increased cleaning of bathroom facilities, and alerting members of the campus community through health advisories about the cases of illness and the need to take appropriate hygiene precautions to limit the spread.”

“The number of reported cases of norovirus among students continues to decline,” reported a Monday update from Rider University, where over 100 cases were originally reported. “We have had a total of 11 reported cases from Sunday morning, February 12, through Monday February 13 at 2 p.m. None of these were sent to the hospital.”

Apparently in response to suggestions that Rider should have been more aggressive in reacting to the outbreak, the update noted that local, county, and state public health officials “supported Rider’s decision to hold classes and events as scheduled.”

The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) describes norovirus as a “highly contagious” viral infection that may be called by other names, including viral gastroenteritis, stomach flu, and food poisoning. The CDC notes that there is no vaccine to prevent the infection and there is no specific drug to treat people who are experiencing the diarrhea, vomiting, and/or stomach pain associated with the illness. “Most people get better within one to two days,” the CDC reports, although “dehydration can be a problem among some people, especially the very young, the elderly, and people with other illnesses.”

While there is no specific treatment for norovirus, adults infected with it may want to use an over-the-counter anti-diarrhea medicine. These are not recommended for children and babies. Everyone, however, is encouraged to drink water to prevent dehydration.

The infection, which is often associated with cruise ships, is believed to be spread by eating or drinking contaminated liquids; touching surfaces or objects that carry the virus, and then placing the hand in the mouth; and by sharing food, drinks, or eating utensils with an infected person. Hand-washing and, when soap and water are not available, the liberal use of hand sanitizers, appear to be the order of the day. By Monday, bottles of Purell had been placed on service desks all around the Princeton Public Library.

So far, so good: the outbreak appears to be limited to the Princeton and Rider campuses. “I can’t say we’ve that seen any cases,” said Pediatric Group doctor John Cotton. At Princeton Regional School (PRS) District offices, Cyd Trumbo said that they too had not had any reported cases of stomach flu, although a new link (“What is Norovirus?”) was added to the PRS website over the weekend.

“Knock on wood we have not been hit hard yet,” reported Princeton Senior Resource Center Director Susan Hoskins. “Hopefully people know to stay home when they feel ill. We have hand sanitizer available throughout the building and encourage people to use good public health prevention practices.”

Other advice for those who are anxious about contracting norovirus includes carefully washing fruits and vegetables, and thoroughly cooking oysters and other shellfish. Those who are already infected should not be involved in any food preparation. Both Princeton and Rider reported that dormitories and other buildings were undergoing careful cleaning and that food services were on alert.

The outbreak was not completely unexpected, according to Mr. Mbugua. “University Health Services plans for an increase in volume every February, since that is frequently a time when utilization of our services increases, so we have adequate resources to handle the number of students that we have been seeing,” he reported.