October 22, 2004
Health official finds no evidence of intestinal illness outside schools
By Tom Lambert
Lansing State Journal
There’s no evidence the intestinal illness shigella has spread to the general public, Ingham County’s top medical examiner said Thursday after contacting local doctors and emergency rooms.
The Lansing School District is now possibly dealing with 32 cases of shigella – 29 at Willow Elementary and potentially three more at Sheridan Road Elementary.
Four of the Willow cases have been confirmed by laboratory tests as shigella, said Dr. Dean Sienko, Ingham County’s medical director.
The outbreak has parents, Lansing school officials and outlaying school districts uneasy and looking to the county Health Department for answers.
“We are getting all kinds of calls from the public, but we aren’t sure how many of them are shigella cases,” Sienko said.
“The Health Department would probably never be getting most or all of these calls if people were getting sick two weeks ago.”
Holt school officials on Thursday contacted the Health Department after eight children and three teachers from Sycamore Elementary School became sick with a flu-like illness, Superintendent Tom Davis said.
He doesn’t believe the illness is shigella, but the district isn’t taking any chances.
“Today our kitchen pulled all perishable foods as a precautionary step,” Davis said. “But there are no problems at other schools so that tells me it is not a food problem.”
Flu-like illnesses are common in schools and spread quickly among children, said Lorraine Lattin, Sycamore principal.
“We are taking certain steps to help eliminate the problem,” she said. “The building custodial staff is wiping down all surfaces like door knobs, tabletops and water fountains during the day and again at night.”
Shigella is a bacteria that can cause bloody diarrhea, fever, vomiting and stomach cramps. It can be spread through human contact, which makes hand-washing essential.
County Health Department officials contacted local emergency rooms and doctors this week to ask them to look out for patients with symptoms of shigella and to contact them if they come across anybody who has symptoms.
There hasn’t been an “unusually high number of absences” at the Lansing School District’s 40 schools, district spokesman Mark Mayes said.
“Our biggest role through this is to keep people informed,” he said.
The only change the district has made so far is temporarily not serving fresh fruits and vegetables at the 29 elementary schools, Mayes said. Health officials said fresh produce can transmit shigella.
Sienko suspects the sick children were contaminated last week, possibly by school lunches or poor hygiene by those who re-heat and serve the food.
Mayes again on Thursday refused to release the names of vendors who provide food to the district, saying it was too early to determine how the illness was transmitted.
The district has at least 11 food service contracts for this school year, according to board minutes posted on the Lansing School District’s Web site.
Services range from elementary lunch entrees to fresh produce to bakery goods.
Toni Pesina of Knollwood Avenue said she had concerns for her granddaughter, Dessire, who attends kindergarten at Willow. But she said she was encourage by a scene she witnessed Thursday.
“When I picked her up today, the teachers were showing the children how to properly wash their hands,” she said. “That made me feel better.”
But Brenten Miles, who has three children who attend Willow, is considering having his kids bring their lunches from home.
“If that becomes a necessity, we will have no choice but to do that,” said Miles, who lives on Roosevelt Avenue.
Some Lansing school board members say the district and the Health Department seem to be on the right track.
“I have not heard from any parents who are concerned,” board member Hugh Clarke said. “It sounds like it is isolated, but it will take time to find out more about this.”
Sienko said it would take several days before he finds the source of the illnesses.
“It’s kind of like a fire, the first thing you want to do is put it out, which we are doing now,” said Sienko, who added he didn’t recall an outbreak of shigella during his 15 years in the county Health Department.
“Then you get into the phase of what went wrong.”
First, Sienko is trying to determine what the sick students ate going back to the middle of last week Then he’ll compare what the sick children ate to what the healthy children consumed during the same time frame. That way he will be able to narrow down a possible source of the shigella.
In Okemos, Superintendent Lee Gerard said he knew of no similar outbreak in his district, but said he was watching developments closely.
“Hopefully, we will be OK and Lansing’s problem will be resolved quickly.”
DeWitt Superintendent Gerald Jennings said the outbreak sent him to the Internet to learn more about shigella.
“I haven’t received any information from the Clinton County Health Department on this problem,” he said, “and right now am not in a position to overreact to this problem.”
Staff writer Sally Trout contributed to this report. Contact Tom Lambert at 377-1063 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
ï What is it? Shigella is a germ that causes intestinal illness and can be passed from person to person if proper hygiene isn’t observed.
ï What are the symptoms? Diarrhea, bloody diarrhea, nausea, vomiting, fever and stomach cramps.
ï How is it treated? Fluids and prescribed antibiotics.
ï How do you prevent it? By thoroughly cooking all food; wash hands before preparing and eating food, after using the bathroom and after assisting children at the toilet.
ï Those with questions may call the Ingham County Health Department at 887-4308.