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University Health Services (UHS) and Harvard University Dining Services (HUDS) are working together to prevent a large scale outbreak of the Norwalk virus, which causes nausea, vomiting and abdominal pain, from reaching Harvard’s campus.
The extremely contagious virus, whose symptoms usually persist for 24 to 48 hours, was responsible for the highly publicized illnesses aboard cruise-ships in recent months.
HUDS has instructed all of its dining hall managers to take additional precautions to prevent the spread of the viral illness which has reached near-epidemic proportions in the Boston area, according to Executive Director of the Boston Public Health Commission John M. Auerbach.
UHS Infectious Control Surveillance Officer Donna V. Campbell said the illness has not yet affected a great many Harvard students.
“Some students have sporadically been coming in with gastrointestinal illnesses, but it’s certainly not an unusual number,” Campbell said.
UHS officials and some House administrators are also trying to spread awareness about the virus.
On Wednesday, UHS posted an update on its website explaining the causes of the virus and the symptoms associated with it.
Leverett Allston Burr Senior Tutor Catherine R. Shapiro, who said both she and her young son Robert became infected with the Norwalk virus, sent an e-mail to the Leverett House e-mail list warning residents of the virus and requesting their cooperation in preventing its transmission.
“Be extra careful not to touch food other than what you expect to eat,” Shapiro wrote. “Try not to handle lots of apples or paw through the bagels or cookies with your fingers.”
HUDS spokesperson Alix McNitt said HUDS employees have been instructed to pay additional attention to their sanitation practices.
This is particularly important since the virus is most often spread through small amounts of fecal matter when people do not wash their hands after using the bathroom, according to UHS officials.
The Norwalk virus may also be transmitted through a handshake or other physical contact, on surfaces or through contaminated food or water.
“Paying close attention to sanitation practices is the best defense,” McNitt said.
Additionally, McNitt said serving utensils are being replaced more frequently to prevent the spread of the virus and HUDS employees are more closely monitoring students’ handling of food in the dining halls.
“We are reminding people to use the serving utensils and things like that,” McNitt said.
The Leverett House dining hall is just one of the Houses adhering to the new instructions.
Leverett House Unit Manager Maureen E. Johannessen said, “We are changing utensils every half hour; I think that will cut down on cross-contamination issues.”
Preventing the viral illness may be particularly desirable given the lack of specific treatment options and the unpleasant symptoms associated with it, Campbell said.
For most people stricken with the virus, treatment is limited to drinking fluids such as ginger ale, although Campbell said intravenous fluids are administered if a patient becomes acutely dehydrated.
Michelle Kuo ’03 said she was beleaguered by the gastrointestinal illness earlier this week.
“My symptoms began on Sunday night,” Kuo said. “I couldn’t fall asleep because my stomach hurt a lot. I also had a huge headache.”
Kuo said her symptoms included nausea, vomiting and fatigue—classic symptoms of the viral illness.
“ I felt really heavy and not motivated to do any work. I slept all day Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday,” Kuo said.
Norwalk—named for the Ohio city in which it was first identified more than three decades ago—rarely causes death or serious illness despite its unpleasant symptoms.
— Staff writer Jaquelyn M. Scharnick can be reached at email@example.com.
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