Illness closes school for blind

Gastrointestinal virus is similar to ones that have afflicted cruise ship passengers

December 23, 2006|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,sun reporter

The Maryland School for the Blind in Baltimore closed twice in the past nine days because of a spreading gastrointestinal virus that sickened 80 to 90 staff and students.

School officials suspect the virus might be similar to the one that has afflicted cruise ship passengers.

On Dec. 14, more than 26 percent of the residential staff was out sick, said Elaine Sveen, school president. There are about 550 employees and students.

"Nobody was hospitalized that I'm aware of," said Dr. Debbie Badawi, medical director at the institution in Northwest Baltimore. "But they were sick enough to stay home from work and school."

The school closed for three days, but when staff and students began returning Tuesday, it was clear the illness had not yet run its course.

"By Wednesday at noon, we decided, `That's it,'" Sveen said. On advice from the city health department, administrators decided to close. "We needed to give people a break."

The school closed two days before the two-week holiday break was set to begin. It is the first time in memory it has closed because of illness, Sveen said.

After the students were gone, the staff was called in to help give the school a thorough overnight cleaning with a bleach solution. "We should be definitely coming back to a clean school," Badawi said.

The school is expected to re-open on schedule Jan. 8.

The cause of the outbreak was still uncertain, pending the results of laboratory tests, Badawi said. But the prime suspect is a norovirus, one in a family of viruses responsible for outbreaks of gastrointestinal illness, including on cruise ships.

"It does not at all seem to be something they ate," she said. "Everything is pointing toward person-to-person spread."

"This is apparently something that has been seen in the community," Badawi said. "I don't think it's something to be especially concerned about. The likelihood of it happening again is very slim."

Noroviruses take their name from a virus first identified after a 1968 outbreak of illness at a school in Norwalk, Ohio. At least 20 different genetic subtypes have now been identified, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The CDC counted 232 outbreaks of norovirus illness between July 1997 and June 2000. Of those, 57 percent were foodborne, and 16 percent were spread person to person. More than a third of the outbreaks occurred in nursing homes and schools.

Symptoms typically begin 24 to 48 hours after infection. They include nausea, vomiting and diarrhea. Some victims may run a low-grade fever, with chills, headaches, muscle aches and fatigue.

People usually recover in a day or two. The chief danger is dehydration.

The virus is highly contagious. It is present in the stool and vomit of infected people for up to three days after symptoms disappear. It is passed from person to person when the infected fail to wash their hands or clean contaminated surfaces adequately.

There are no vaccines or antiviral medicines against noroviruses, and antibiotics are ineffective against viruses.

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