UNC-CH public health specialists confirm Norwalk-like virus caused Seawell illnesses

CHAPEL HILL -- A Norwalk-like virus caused the large outbreak of viral illness in late May at Elizabeth Seawell Elementary School in Chapel Hill, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill scientists say. Some 150 children, teachers and staff took sick.

"We were invited by Drs. Newt MacCormack and Jean-Marie Maillard of the general communicable disease control section of the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services' epidemiology division to assist with the outbreak investigation," said Dr. Christine Moe, assistant professor of epidemiology at the UNC-CH School of Public Health.

"Over the past seven years, we have assisted the state with a number of investigations of gastroenteritis outbreaks, including two at Duke University," Moe said. "Our laboratory staff, manager Lisa Lindesmith and technician Erin-Joi Collins McNeal, worked with the Orange County communicable disease nurse, Judy Butler, to coordinate collection and testing of specimens from affected children and adults."

Two graduate students, Fanchen Tseng and Phuong-Thao Thi Vo, spent part of their Memorial Day weekend collecting specimens from affected children. Both lab staff and students tested them over the holiday weekend and the following week. Preliminary results indicated that a Norwalk-like virus caused the outbreak in most of the specimens.

"We have now confirmed those findings, checked whether all the specimens had the identical virus and characterized the virus strain," Moe said. "We know from our work on other Norwalk-like virus outbreaks and from our human challenge studies that these viruses are highly infectious, and we hypothesize that the virus was probably spread in the school by children and teachers who vomited in the school."

Contact with contaminated air and surfaces has been implicated in previous outbreaks of Norwalk-like strains, she said.

The virus got its name after first being identified in Norwalk, a small Ohio town that suffered an ou

Contact: David Williamson
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

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