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Stomach bug slams schools

Breakout emptied classrooms, but illness passed quickly

POSTED: February 12, 2009 11:51 p.m.

Kindergartner Iveth Chavez, 5, washes her hands in the bathroom before going to lunch Thursday at Lyman Hall Elementary School.

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Flu season hasn’t hit Georgia in full force yet, but there are plenty of other illnesses going around.

Several Hall County schools have experienced outbreaks of viral gastroenteritis, or what’s commonly called “stomach flu.” It is not related to influenza, which is a respiratory disease.

The school that’s been hit hardest is Friendship Elementary near Buford. Last Friday, 167 of the school’s 656 students were absent, including at least 22 who were sent home during the day because of vomiting.

“I don’t think we’ve ever had a (gastrointestinal) virus hit in one day with those numbers,” said Mamie Coker, health services coordinator for Hall County Schools.

She speculates that this stomach bug may have been especially virulent, causing it to pass more quickly from one student to another. But the sick children did not necessarily infect their families at home.

“Their older brothers and sisters attend C.W. Davis Middle School and Flowery Branch High, and we didn’t see outbreaks at those schools,” said Coker. “It might be that younger kids were more susceptible to this particular virus, and older people had built up immunity.”

With all the media coverage about salmonella, Coker wondered whether the outbreak at Friendship could have been a foodborne illness. But she has ruled out that possibility.

“With food poisoning, the symptoms would have been more severe, such as fever and bloody diarrhea,” she said. “Also, we would have seen outbreaks at more than one school, because they all have the same (cafeteria) menus and get their food from the same sources.”

Fortunately, the illness appeared to be a “24-hour” virus, and its victims recovered quickly. “By Monday, their numbers (of absences) were back within the range we expect at this time of year,” Coker said.

During winter, an absentee rate of 10 to 14 percent is typical, though it can go as high as 20 percent when there are several illnesses circulating.

Coker said last week’s frigid weather, which prevented children from playing outdoors, may have contributed to the spread of illness.

“You’ve got people in close proximity for longer periods of time, touching common surfaces,” she said.

While colds and flu viruses can be spread through the air by coughing or sneezing, a gastrointestinal virus is transmitted when hands touch a contaminated surface and then touch the mouth.

That’s another reason small children get sick a lot. “Younger kids are always touching each other, and they frequently put their hands in their mouths,” said Coker.

The best way to prevent almost any infectious illness is to be vigilant about handwashing. The schools try to instill good hygiene habits in children as early as possible.

“We use hand sanitizers in the classroom, and students are taught to wash their hands before going to lunch and after going to the bathroom,” said Coker.

Pat Tilson, principal of Lyman Hall Elementary School, said it’s a message that can’t be repeated often enough.

“We remind them constantly,” she said. “Many of our classrooms have sinks, and the children wash their hands throughout the day.”

Coker said the school nurses play a big role in teaching proper hygiene. “They go into classrooms, show a video on handwashing, and teach the “ABC” song (which helps children understand how long they need to scrub their hands),” she said.

“The schools also try to make sure the soap dispensers are full and working. The nurses make a point of checking.”

But Tilson said no preventive measure is 100 percent effective. “Anytime you have a lot of folks in one area, there’s going to be some illness,” she said. “And sometimes parents bring kids to school when they shouldn’t.”

Coker said at least a few of the students who were sent home from Friendship Elementary last week had already vomited before coming to school that day.

“If your child has had vomiting or diarrhea within the last 24 hours, you should keep them home,” she said. “I know that’s tough on parents, but it really is better for the child and for everyone else at school.”


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