Claims concerning increases in norovirus cases among University of Wisconsin students appear to be inconclusive, despite what recent reports suggest.
The perception UW is starting to see rising numbers of norovirus cases on campus is not necessarily true, University Health Services epidemiologist Craig Roberts said. As to be expected, levels of sickness have increased since the beginning of the semester, but Roberts assures this is normal for students.
“There are certainly some increases [in illness] since classes started,” Roberts explained, “But whether those infections are actually norovirus or not, we don’t know. So, we are not seeing an outbreak and we have no indication that there is a particular increase in norovirus per se.”
However, while UW may not currently be experiencing a norovirus outbreak, it does not mean an outbreak is not possible, Roberts said. Places with higher densities of people, on campus especially, are perfect breeding grounds for viruses, bacterial diseases and other forms of illness, Roberts noted.
In particular, residence halls appear to be of major concern as students living in close quarters share more than just the same building, he said.
“It’s kind of a setup for the spread of this virus,” Roberts added. “Norovirus is a disease that we often see in close environments, classically or infamously on cruise ships, but also in close spaces like residence halls because you have a lot of people sharing a bathroom.”
Roberts explained norovirus is the most common cause of gastrointestinal illness, but having symptoms such as vomiting and diarrhea do not necessarily indicate the virus is present. He added the norovirus is not something UHS measures because it is rarely tested for, and thus, the belief its outbreaks can be recorded is a slight misconception.
According to Roberts, norovirus is spread through contaminated food, water or surfaces. As a result, dormitory bathrooms are of major concern, as multiple students share an area where they brush their teeth, wash their faces and even wash their dishes.
According to Sellery Hall Desk Services staff member Savannah Windhorn, who confirmed she has yet to hear of an outbreak in Sellery, word of the norovirus spreading among students in residence halls appears to be mum. Other staff members of Ogg Hall and Smith Hall were equally unaware of norovirus outbreaks in the residence halls.
However, according to Robert Striker, an associate professor at the UW School of Medicine and Public Health, dormitories may not be the only risk factors for the spread of the norovirus.
“College campuses tend to have places where there are a lot of people interacting with each other,” Striker said. “Lecture halls, cafeterias [and] apartment complexes — any time you’ve got an increase in communicable diseases in a high density area and there is human-to-human spread, there is a risk.”
With risk present, prevention of illness around this time of year is crucial.
Hand washing is key to preventing transmission, according to Roberts. He advised students to make sure to wash their hands before touching their face, eating or preparing food for other people, as these viruses and bacteria are all transmitted by the intestinal route.
“Norovirus is very contagious and assuming there are cases, human-to-human transmission usually outbreaks,” Striker said. “But even when these outbreaks are occurring they tend to peter out over a little bit of time.”