Over 100 ill with noro at USC

Norovirus kind of sucks, unless you are a virologist. The perfect human pathogen (a term coined by my NoroCORE colleague and all-around good guy, Aron Hall) is shed at a crazy high rate of virus particles per gram of vomit or feces and sticks around in the environment for a long time. So outbreaks tend to persist and hit college campuses where lots of people live and eat together.

Like USC, where, according to LAist, a lot of students are sick.la-sp-usc-recruiting-update-20141021

The Los Angeles County Department of Public Health has confirmed that they are currently investigating a norovirus outbreak at the University of Southern California. A representative from the Department of Public Health told LAist that 103 cases have been reported since October 26, which is when the university reached out to the department about the situation. 

The university has asked students to remain home from classes or social events until they’ve been symptom free for at least 24 hours, according to a post on the USC Engemann Student Health Center website. This isn’t the first time the student body has been struck down by the virus—in 2008 hundreds of cases were reported in 2008, and there were a number of outbreaks around the L.A. area last year, as well.

Brae Surgeoner, Doug and I had a paper published in the Journal of Environmental Health about some research we conducted in the Winter of 2006. The study came about because a whole bunch of kids in the University of Guelph’s residence system started puking from an apparent norovirus outbreak. There were lots of handwashing signs up and we wanted to know whether they changed hygiene behavior (especially if kids were using the tools available when entering the cafeteria). Turns out that students weren’t doing as good of a job at hand hygiene as they reported to us.

My advice to journalism students: don’t go to J-school, don’t listen to advice

 The University of Southern California School for Communication and Journalism asked me months ago for tips on reporting about health issues.

I have no idea why. But I came up with the following:

Five-year-old Mason Jones died a painful and unnecessary death.

Mason’s death was part of an outbreak of E. coli O157:H7 that sickened 157 people — primarily schoolchildren — in south Wales in Sept. 2005. The source was determined to be contaminated meat supplied to 44 schools by John Tudor and Son, which used the same machine to vacuum package both raw and cooked meats. This practice had been in place some years before an environmental health officer recognized, in a Jan. 2005 routine inspection, the potential for cross contamination that existed. Employees continued the practice through the time of the outbreak while assuring the environmental health officer that a second machine was being repaired. This proved to be a lie.

This tragic outbreak, the largest involving E. coli in Wales’ history, received no media coverage in the U.S.; neither did a public inquiry into the outbreak by Professor Hugh Pennington that detailed multiple failures not only with the butcher (meat processor), but with the school board and food safety inspectors.
Outbreaks of foodborne illness are not acts of god: they are invariably the culmination of multiple mistakes by multiple actors from farm-to-fork, ones that are often glossed over in press releases.

Around the world, there are daily outbreaks of foodborne illness, each providing a wealth of journalistic material — tragedy, bad management, indifferent oversight. Yet most are ignored.

And in a society obsessed with food porn, terrible food safety advice can be found anywhere.

There has been some excellent media coverage of microbial food safety issues since the 1993 E. coli O157:H7 outbreak linked to Jack-in-the-Box that killed four and sickened more than 600; there also has also been some terribly misleading coverage.

Among the unchallenged food safety stories, however, is that more government involvementmeans fewer sick people.

While the Internet and the mainstream media were all excited about the passage of new federal food safety legislation earlier this year, it doesn’t stand my story test: will it make fewer people barf?

When it comes to the safety of the food supply, I generally ignore political chatter, as well as the Internet commentaries and conspiracy theories. As the Government Accountability Office pointed out in a 2008 report, “The burden for food safety in most … countries lies primarily with food producers, rather than with inspectors, although inspectors play an active role in overseeing compliance. This principle applies to both domestic and imported products.”
It’s nice that food safety is once again a priority in Washington and that politicians are trying to set a tone. But chatting doesn’t mean fewer sick people — actions do.

Other food safety nosestretchers include:

1. We (insert country, state, region) have the safest food in the world;
2. The majority of food-borne illness is due to mistakes in the home (nope, that’s just a way to blame consumers);
3. We’ve been making or serving food this way for (fill in the number of decades) and never made anyone sick;
4. I got food poisoning from the last place I ate; and,
5. Food safety is simple.

And if you are assigned to a look-where-we found-bacteria story — on subway seats, grocery carts, money, sex toys, computer keyboards — talk to someone reputable to place the findings in context. There are bacteria everywhere. Only some of them make people sick.

Microorganisms that make people sick exist in whatever kind of food production and distribution system that smart humans come up with.

Unfortunately, consumers can’t really vote with their food dollars, because retailers are loathe to market food safety. The marketing void is instead filled with a steady stream of local/natural/sustainable/organic/raw food that may be worthy lifestyle choices but have nothing to do with food safety. People respond in surveys they perceive such food to be safer — in the absence of any microbiological data. Grocery stores say all food is safe, yet the many outbreaks of food-borne illness suggest otherwise. The best farms, processors, retailers and restaurants should brag about their microbial food safety efforts and accomplishments. With so many sick people each year, there’s an attentive audience out there.

I hope you’ll constantly strive to expand your network of sources; be wary of vanity presses, and seek out primary references and sources. The stories are there.

Dr. Douglas Powell is a professor of food safety at Kansas State University and the publisher of barfblog.com. He can be contacted at dpowell@ksu.edu.

Georgetown, USC, now Vermont; students are barfing everywhere; no answer from Organic To Go

Susan Schoenfeld, the Vermont Health Department’s deputy epidemiologist, said state and UVM health officials were looking into the possibility that some of the students sickened by the virus got sick shortly after eating a meal at the University Marche, a dining center inside the school’s Living & Learning Center.

“Several of the students who had just eaten a meal at the dining hall became ill,” she said. “We’ve told the university we can’t rule out the possibility that food was related to the outbreak, in addition to person-to-person transmission.”

To date, about 60 students have reported becoming sick with gastroenteritis symptoms over the past few days, but the outbreak now appears to be in decline. Only four new cases of the illness were reported Thursday, according to a UVM memo to the campus community.

The memo also discussed the possible connection of the dining hall to the outbreak and said there was no way to confirm if food in the eatery caused anyone to become sick. The memo said it was possible someone who was sick possibly contaminated otherwise high-quality food.”

High quality? OK, so I’m sure the providers of food to UVM students are concerned about the things that make people barf, and wouldn’t be taken in by some trendy, local, natural thing, at least without asking basic questions about microbial food safety such as irrigation water quality, soil amendments and employee handwashing. 

But I asked the same questions of Organic To Go and have heard nothing.

Is there a link between norovirus at Georgetown and USC?

As the number of norovirus illnesses reached 330 at the University of Southern California and 212 at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., the Georgetown Voice reports both schools serve meals prepared by the Organic-to-Go food distributor, although Georgetown officials do not believe there is a connection. (Note: a PR person from Organic-to-Go says USC stopped serving what she calls grab-and-go food from Organic-to-Go in Aug. 2008 — dp)

Georgetown officials were also cited as saying today that:

* Georgetown cleaning crews and temporary contract crews have been working through the weekend to keep public areas clean.  Thousands of wipes and sixty hand sanitizer stations have been placed around campus.

* DC Department of Public Health is conducting an epidemiological study to determine the cause of the outbreak.  The results of the study should be released in the next few days.  Food samples from Leo’s have been tested.  The cause of the outbreak is still unknown, but the study should provide some insight.

* The University does not know when Leo’s employees will stop serving all food to students, but there are no plans to continue this practice indefinitely.

At USC, the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health confirmed norovirus was the source of the USC outbreak. Officials said restrooms and common areas of residence halls have been thoroughly cleaned in response to the outbreak and USC officials have provided sanitation measures to university-owned housing and fraternity and sorority row.

Here’s an old infosheet on norovirus, in Spanish.

Norovirus not just for Georgetown

Norovirus continues to work its porcelain magic.

After striking  175 Georgetown students – there was vomiting in the emergency waiting rooms and residence hallways, but at least they got Powerade – something that sure sounded like norovirus sickened 75 University of Southern California students.

The campus community was alerted early Saturday with a blast of e-mail and cell phone text messages and officials stressed that ill students should not attend Saturday evening’s football game between the USC Trojans and Oregon.

Several students and staff at a private school in Tulsa, Oklahoma, got sick during lunch on Friday and the health department suspects watermelon in a fruit salad based on what the individuals ate. The health department took samples, and will test them for foodborne illnesses.

And the Washoe District Health Department in Nevada is reminding people to use "effective handwashing procedures" following a rise of gastrointestinal illnesses.

Here’s another norovirus infosheet from the past.