Students’ illness not food-borne

A Public Health investigation ruled out food poisoning from the Dining Hall as a source of illness. (Photo by Madeline Turriff)

A Public Health investigation ruled out food poisoning from the Dining Hall as a source of illness. (Photo by Madeline Turriff)

A cluster of student illnesses that were investigated last week as a potential food poisoning incident have since been determined as a likely seasonal flu or virus.

The Region of Waterloo Public Health was called in to make the determination after seven students at Wilfrid Laurier University reported to Health Services last Wednesday with gastrointestinal symptoms, including diarrhea and vomiting.

“We didn’t have any links through inspections that the Dining Hall were the ones responsible for the illnesses,” said Nick Crawford, the area manager for Waterloo in health protection investigations.

The health inspector spoke with Food Services and Health Services managers, took food samples and interviewed students to help determine if any patterns existed across cases that would indicate food-borne illness.

As of Monday, according to Health Services manager Karen Ostrander, 21 students had presented with similar symptoms, which is not uncommon for this time of year.

“We’ve had a few people presenting each day, but really not out of the ordinary,” she said.

Crawford added, “This time of year you have similar symptoms, norovirus-like symptoms out in the community. [Heath Services’] conclusion is that this is not an outbreak, as such.”

The number of students presenting were divided between residence and off-campus students, Ostrander confirmed.

Cases may be higher, however, as not all students are likely to have come to Health Services for treatment.

“The number of students that have officially presented and the number of people who have told Residence Life or other people that they’re sick, those two numbers are different from each other,” said Dan Dawson, assistant vice president of student services at WLU.

Students at five different residences were identified as being sick. Residence staff worked in coordination with Health Services and Public Health to circulate information.

“We tried to do kind of an outreach into the residence communities to remind students that if they felt sick, whether for seasonal reasons or health reasons or things they believed to be related to food, to let their dons know or to go directly to Health Services,” said Sheldon Pereira, residence life manager at Laurier.

Students who were sick were provided with questionnaires from Public Health to help assess consistencies across cases. Public Health has not been able to determine the nature of the illnesses, as no students provided stool samples.

While this bout of illnesses does not appear to be highly contagious or of a pandemic nature, Laurier has provisions in place should a health crisis of that nature take place.

Dawson explained that after the SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) outbreak in the early 2000s, all Canadian post-secondary education institutions had to develop emergency preparedness programs.

“If it is something extreme … like a contagious virus, we would work with Health Services on our epidemiology plan for how we contain the spread of viruses and contagious illnesses,” said Pereira, on how residences would respond.

Dawson noted that a priority is now communicating with students to ensure they have confidence in the Dining Hall services and will continue to eat there.

“On the food side, really what we’re trying to do now, is make sure students understand, as we’ve posted on the website, we’ve had the health inspection, they’ve concluded that there’s no direct connection to our facility, so you shouldn’t be worried about eating there,” he said.

To keep healthy, Health Services urges students to practice frequent hand washing and avoid contact with sick persons.

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