The independent news organization of Duke University

Gastroenteritis hits campus

A stomach illness known as gastroenteritis has beset several University residence halls over the past two weeks. Despite rumors of a wide-ranging trend, Director of Student Heath Dr. Bill Christmas said few cases have been confirmed and he does not consider the uptick in gastroenteritis to be abnormal.


    Though there are myriad causes of gastroenteritis, Christmas said a virus is the most likely cause of the Duke scourge. Viral gastoenteritis, caused by something called a norovirus, is a contagious disease that lasts 36 to 48 hours and can include such symptoms as diarrhea, nausea, vomiting and abdominal pain and cramping.

Student Health treated three students for gastroenteritis last week and four the week before. Twenty-six cases were confirmed at the emergency department as of Monday, but Christmas said officials told him a "very low" number of that group were students. One student had to stay overnight for observation.


    Christmas said the most common way the illness spreads in institutional settings is through contaminated or mishandled food. Such a case was reported at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill earlier this year; according to the Orange County Health Department, students may have been made ill by eating from the salad bar at a dining hall.


    No evidence, however, currently links Duke's illnesses to dining facilities. Further, the relatively small number of ill students--Carolina had over 100 confirmed cases-- does not give Director of Dining Services Jim Wulforst cause for alarm.


    "If [Christmas] felt it was a campus issue and it related to one of our dining operations, he would have given us a call," Wulforst said. "Any activity like that I would want to fully investigate."


    Duke did have a much larger outbreak in January 1996, when Christmas said as many as 400 to 500 students acquired a norovirus and became ill. So many students became ill that sorority rush was cut short. Although the Durham County Health Department was ultimately unable to pinpoint a source of the gastroenteritis, the outbreak was thoroughly studied and ended up in a scientific article in the Journal of American College Health.


    Rumors flew last week that the University was headed down the road to outbreak again. Christmas said he heard that as many as 50 students had been admitted to the emergency department for the illness, which was later proven untrue. Residential Life and Housing Services staff members sent an e-mail to Christmas saying that five students had fallen sick in Gilbert-Addoms Dormitory and warned residents about "a debilitating flu"--a misnomer, since gastroenteritis is not influenza.

The real influenza was, in fact, more of a worry for Student Health when it struck campus just before winter break this year. Christmas said he saw "a lot more cases" of influenza then than gastroenteritis now.


    Ultimately, though, the illnesses may end up leaving campus in similar ways. "Spring break will help," Christmas said. "That's what helped us in December, when we had the influenza. We saw increasing numbers of flu cases--then folks took off."


Share and discuss “Gastroenteritis hits campus” on social media.