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Read about the meningitis outbreak at the University of Maryland and other viral outbreaks on college campuses across the country. Below is the full article written for my feature writing journalism class. There is also a link to the abridged version, which has been published on The Odyssey Online.
Ebola may be making headlines but it isn’t the virus most people should be afraid of and college students, not health care workers, should be the most worried about contracting numerous other viruses.
Thousands of students and faculty at universities across the country fall victim to outbreaks of viruses such as meningitis, gastroenteritis and mumps every year.
The University of Maryland is the latest to have an outbreak of a virus- viral meningitis. The number of cases has grown to 20 at the University of Maryland, according to the University Health Center.
“Since this discovery, the Health Center has been tracking these cases carefully in close collaboration with the Prince George’s County Health Department and the State Health Department,” David McBride, the director of the health center said in an address to the university.
Viral meningitis is not as dangerous as another strain of the virus- bacterial meningitis. According to McBride, symptoms of viral meningitis include severe headaches, fever, nausea, vomiting and sometimes dehydration.
“I think it [the outbreak] is very concerning and ever since I found out about it I have been very cautious about sharing drinks or anything from people at parties,” Jenny Gandhi, a senior at the University of Maryland said.
The University of Maryland is not the first college to be hit with an outbreak where students and faculty members fall ill and in some cases, have to be admitted to the hospital.
A common virus to spread quickly around universities is mumps. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, mumps is a vaccine-preventable viral disease, characterized by the swelling of the salivary glands; serious complications, such as meningitis can occur if the virus goes untreated.
In October 2011, the California Department of Public Health (CDPH) confirmed a mumps outbreak at the University of California Berkeley in Berkeley, Calif.. The number of suspected and confirmed cases grew to 44 and began when a UC Berkeley student contracted the virus in Great Britain, according to the CDPH.
“It’s actually not unusual for outbreaks of mumps in the U.S. that there has been some contact with someone who has been out of the country,” Mike Sicilia, the spokesperson for the department said.
The virus quickly spread through high-population student quarters with shared dining and bathroom facilities. The university health services focused preventive efforts on those areas and encouraged students to get the Measles Mumps Rubella vaccine (MMR).
In February 2014, there were outbreaks of mumps on the Ohio State University, Fordham University and Loyola University Maryland campuses. According to Columbus Public Health, Ohio State University in Columbus, Ohio, had a total of 155 students, 31 staff members and 54 community members with links to the university diagnosed with mumps. Fordham University in New York stated that it had a total of 13 suspected cases and Loyola University Maryland in Baltimore confirmed that it had more than a dozen students with the virus.
At all three universities, the administration sent emails or had information posted on their websites about the outbreak and students were encouraged to seek medical treatment immediately if they experienced any symptoms.
“If you develop symptoms of mumps, please stay home from work, school, sports and all public gatherings for five days after symptoms start. You should seek medical care to be properly diagnosed,” Ohio State University officials said.
According to the university, Fordham had isolated infected students and in some cases, sent the infected students home; however, because symptoms appear days or even weeks after a person is infected, the number of cases could grow.
Recently, these universities have reported a decrease in the number of cases since the outbreaks first began due to catching symptoms early and containing the virus.
Along with mumps, gastroenteritis, sometimes referred to as norovirus, is also very commonly spread throughout colleges. Gastroenteritis is an intestinal infection caused by norovirus and is marked by diarrhea, abdominal cramps, nausea or vomiting and sometimes fever, according to the Mayo Clinic. It is contracted through close contact with an infected person or from contaminated food or water.
There is no cure for viral gastroenteritis; therefore prevention is key. If a person is in good overall health, he/she will most likely recover without further complications. For infants or the elderly with weakened immune systems, viral gastroenteritis could be deadly.
In October 2013, Stanford University in Stanford Calif. had an outbreak of gastroenteritis. 62 students living in the same residence hall visited the university’s health center with symptoms that included vomiting and diarrhea. Seven students were admitted to Stanford Hospital and Clinics for severe dehydration and were treated and released, according to Stanford University.
The Santa Clara County Public Health Department conducted an investigation on Stanford’s campus and, although it could not find the source of the outbreak, determined that, due to the symptoms, gastroenteritis was the cause of the students’ illness.
The virus was identified early and preventive methods were quickly put in place to stop the spread of it to other residence and dining halls across the campus
In the spring of 2011, the norovirus hit Spring Arbor University in Spring Arbor, Mich. so severely that the university postponed its commencement for one week. The university reported that over 170 students were infected and hoped that postponing the commencement would help stop the spread of the virus.
“These decisions are preventative and consistent with the medical advice received. Of utmost concern for all of us is the safety and health of our campus community and the families and friends planning on participating in the various academic year-end activities,” University President at the time, Charles Webb said in an address to the university. “Spring Arbor University has a responsibility of doing what is in the best interest of our students, faculty, staff and visitors to campus.”
All of these viruses are so common among college students because everyone is living and eating in such close quarters. Sharing bathrooms is also a large factor when it comes to the spread of viruses.
According to the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP), “college freshmen who live in dormitories are 6 times more likely than other people to be infected with meningitis. They have the country’s highest rate of the disease at 5.1 cases per 100,000.”
Similar to the universities suffering from the outbreak of mumps, these universities used early diagnosis and preventive methods in order to stop the spread of gastroenteritis.
Currently dealing with its own outbreak, the University of Maryland’s recent spread of meningitis is now suspected as stemming from the respiratory enterovirus-68 that has spread across the nation. The state public health lab in Maryland is conducting further testing to confirm this connection, State Epidemiologist Dr. David Blythe said.
According to the university health center, five meningitis cases were confirmed as having been caused by an enterovirus, however, with more than 100 strains of the virus, the university is not certain which strain caused the meningitis and predicted that it may be weeks before officials know.
The university is urging students and faculty to stay vigilant in personal hygiene and hand washing in order to control and hopefully, stop the spread of the virus.