By: Candess Zona-Mendola

Almost 80 elementary student are sick at the Humble Independent School District this week. Local Houston media reported this morning that an unusual volume of students either called in sick or needed to leave school due to illness. The media reports that all children have displayed the same symptoms, which appear to be foodborne related. The Humble Independent School District is currently investigating the cause. Reports confirm that the Harris County Health Department has also been contacted as a precautionary measure.

The School Responds

In light of the string of absences, the school issued a letter to the parents of the students. The letter states, as follows:

“Dear Woodland Hills Elementary School Parents:

Woodland Hills Elementary had an unusually high absence rate today. Seventy-eight children were absent and more were sent home ill. Vomiting and diarrhea appear to be common symptoms. At this point, the cause of the illness is not known.

No other campuses have reported unusual numbers of absences.

As a precaution, Humble ISD custodial services are sanitizing the school and will conduct another thorough cleaning tonight.

Students are also being encouraged to wash their hands frequently. Washing hands before and after eating and other activities is a highly effective method of preventing the spread of illness.

The Harris County Health Department has been contacted as a precaution. They have asked to speak to a small selection of parents to aid in their investigation and determine if any additional steps need to be taken for prevention.

If your child exhibits any symptoms of a stomach ache or diarrhea, please keep your child home and seek advice from your physician.

Thank you,

Debi Beard, Principal”

The media has reported that the school is doing everything possible to prevent the spread of the outbreak.

Investigation Commenced

After being altered to the outbreak, the Harris County Health Department has launched an investigation. The health agency has asked to speak to the parents of ill children, in hopes of determining the cause of the outbreak. The local media has reported that the health department also is trying to determine if any additional steps need to be taken to prevent the spread of the outbreak. Officials have confirmed that the source or cause of the illnesses are unknown.

Health officials have not mentioned inspections of the school. It appears at this time that only interviews are being conducted. The agency has not mentioned obtaining any specimens from those who are ill or food and water samples from the school itself.

A Norovirus Outbreak in Humble?

Norovirus has been prevalent in schools this year. Schools in Santa Monica, California and Arlington, Virginia are among those who have been subjected to Norovirus outbreaks. One school in Denver, Colorado in March of this year linked its Norovirus outbreak to the cool cafeteria’s salad bar. Could Norovirus be the culprit of this outbreak?

Norovirus is among the most common source of foodborne illnesses in the United States each year. Children, the elderly, and those with suppressed immune systems are among those in the highest risk group for illness. Norovirus is especially concerning in places where a large number of people congregate in one area, like schools, healthcare facilities, daycare facilities, cruise ships, resorts, etc. Norovirus is also common at catered events, like weddings, and at restaurants. Norovirus is also very common during the winter months, which prompted a recent warning from federal health agencies.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that there are between 19 and 21 million cases every year – two million of these required medical attention and 56,000 and 71,000 people are hospitalized.  Knowing the symptoms and seeking medical attention can help reduce the risk of long-term complications, like severe inflammation of the stomach and intestines or dehydration.

Symptoms of Norovirus begin anywhere from 12 to 48 hours after exposure. Symptoms can, and may, include: diarrhea, nausea, vomiting, and abdominal cramping. In some cases, an ill person may also have fever, headaches, and body aches. If the ill person develops severe dehydration, additional symptoms of this complication include: decrease in urination, dry mouth, dizziness upon standing, and dry throat. Symptoms usually clear up within 3 days or so.

A doctor may diagnose Norovirus based on symptom expression, but a stool test is also used to diagnose the infection. Supportive care, rest, and fluids are usually all the treatments needed for Norovirus illnesses. However, medical attention is recommended if the early signs of dehydration are seen or if symptoms become worse.

The further concern with Norovirus is that it mutates quickly. This means that it is highly likely that someone will become re-infected with Norovirus several times throughout their life. There is no vaccination that is useful at this time for Norovirus infections.

Preventing the Spread of an Outbreak

Despite the fact that Norovirus is extremely contagious, that does not mean it cannot be prevented or reduced from spreading. This is the main reason handwashing is a good idea, during an outbreak and always. UnsafeFoods has provided tips on how to practice proper hand washing here. Good hygienic practices and keeping food preparation areas clean are also recommended to prevent the spread of the pathogen.

Norovirus is typically found in the fecal matter of an infected person. It can be transmitted from person-to-person, through eating food or drinking something prepared by someone ill with Norovirus poisoning, and by touching contaminated surfaces. The infection is mainly spread by someone who is still symptomatic. This is why it is recommended that anyone suffering from Norovirus stay home to recover from work or school. Food service workers and employees are especially recommended to stay home until symptoms has passed.

Another method of prevention is to properly cook foods. Most meats must be cooked to an internal temperature of 165 degrees Fahrenheit in order to eliminate potential contaminates. Fish will often need to be cooked to a temperature of 145 degrees Fahrenheit to achieve the same effect. has provided a full list of proper optimum cooking temperatures on their website here.