Campus experiencing likely norovirus outbreak

Update (April 13, 2015): The norovirus outbreak appears to be over. The original story is below.

Clinicians at MIT Medical are reporting an increased number of patients with acute gastroenteritis—“probably norovirus,” says Associate Medical Director Howard Heller.

Since the beginning of the week, MIT Medical’s Urgent Care Service has seen 18 patients with diarrhea, nausea, and vomiting. Heller notes that cases do not appear to be linked to any particular dorm or dining hall. “Although four patients are from Next House,” Heller notes, “another seven are from different dormitories, and the rest live off campus.”

Hand-washing is key

Norovirus, which causes a severe and acute form of gastroenteritis, can spread quickly, especially in dense, semi-closed communities like MIT, Heller notes. “Our response must be to pay extra attention to practicing good hygiene. Frequent and consistent hand-washing is the best way to prevent the spread of this type of virus.” And, he adds, research has shown that soap and water is more effective against norovirus than alcohol-based hand sanitizers.

MIT Medical is monitoring the situation closely, adds MIT Medical’s Director of Student Health Shawn Ferullo, M.D. “We’ll continue reviewing any new cases to see if we can discern any patterns, and we are ready to take any additional precautions that prove necessary.”

MIT has a large international population, and as students, faculty, and staff return to campus for the fall semester, MIT Medical is responding to concerns about community members who may have spent some portion of the summer months in an area impacted by the Ebola virus.

According to MIT Medical’s associate medical director Howard Heller, M.D., an infectious disease specialist, MIT Medical is following the most recent Ebola advisory for colleges and universities from the Massachusetts Department of Public Health. The advisory recommends that individuals returning from an affected area be in touch with campus health officials to identify their level of risk and, if necessary, be instructed on how to monitor their health until the 21-day incubation period has passed.

“With assistance from the MIT International Students Office, the International Scholars Office, and the MIT Travel Office—along with a review of patient records from MIT Medical’s Travel Clinic—we have identified members of the MIT community who are from, or who recently have traveled to, Nigeria, Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone,” explains Heller. “This is a very small number of individuals,” he notes. “All have been contacted directly and are well.

“Any member of the MIT community who has traveled to one of the three primarily affected countries, but who has not been contacted by MIT Medical, should ‘check in’ with me,” he adds. Heller can be contacted by email or by phone at 617-253-1615. “Again,” he says, “we’re concerned only with travel to and from Nigeria, Liberia, Guinea, and Sierra Leone. And although several cases of Ebola have occurred in Nigeria, all have been in persons who traveled to one of the three primarily affected countries or who have had direct contact with someone diagnosed with Ebola. There have been no Nigerian cases involving community transmission.” Members of the Institute community with questions about medical issues related to Ebola may contact Heller or Infection Control Specialist Jackie Sherry at MIT Medical. Questions regarding trip cancellations or other travel matters should be directed to the MIT Travel Office. Further information about Ebola symptoms and precautions can be found on the CDC website.

““We will continue to monitor the situation closely,” Heller says, “and we will keep the community informed. Our recommendations and outreach efforts may change as the situation evolves.”

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