Health officials are investigating the outbreak of a mystery illness this week among Anchorage School District students that caused dozens to call in sick or get sent home with nausea, vomiting and diarrhea.
The hardest hit were Dimond and Service high schools, though the number of absentees was unknown Friday. It wasn't clear exactly how many students reported having similar symptoms or if other schools had seen outbreaks, a school district spokeswoman said. Some school staff members were also reportedly affected.
The outbreak has been characterized by sudden, unexpected vomiting. The illness does not appear to be life-threatening. Most of those affected have recovered in 12 to 48 hours, according to state health officials.
Friday alone, school nurses across the district sent home as many as 80 students with roughly the same symptoms from what Nancy Edtl, the Anchorage School District's head nurse, said appeared to be a "noro-like virus." State health officials investigating the outbreak suspect the illness is norovirus, a family of gastrointestinal bugs spread from person to person, by food contaminated with feces or by contact with vomit produced by a person with norovirus.
The high number of cases is a cause for concern, Edtl said.
"When you have that many, you know, you have to figure out what it is," Edtl said. "And is it contagious? How contagious? What caused it? Is it a food-borne illness? Is there some other common denominator?"
Those are questions that state epidemiologists will attempt to answer in an investigation that began Friday, according to the Department of Health and Social Services.
One high school had about 140 students call in sick Friday, much higher than an average day, though it was unclear if all of them suffered from the same symptoms, Edtl said. The illness struck quickly, causing more than one student to vomit without warning during class, she said.
Dimond High School freshman Tayja Wright, reached by phone Friday while she was home sick, described just such a scene that happened Wednesday partway through a writing test. Wright said the classroom of students was about an hour into the test, nearing a break time, when a boy two or three seats behind her vomited.
"I didn't notice it at first. I just thought he was coughing," Wright said. "It didn't get on anybody else, so that was one good thing about it."
The teacher administering the test told the students to continue and removed the sick boy from the room, which smelled bad, distracting the test-takers, Wright said. About five minutes later, a school administrator told the students to come out to the hallway, but they weren't allowed to talk to each other, in case they tried to share answers, Wright said. They were then taken to another classroom to finish the test, she said. A janitor cleaned up the mess in the first classroom, Wright said.
"I was just thinking, 'Gross, I hope I don't get sick,'" Wright said.
But Wright did get sick, right in the middle of shopping at a mall, she said. Her symptoms were the same as those reported by others, but Wright said she was feeling better by Friday, though still a "little achy."
State epidemiologists discussed the outbreak with city and school district officials Friday and agreed to look into it, said Greg Wilkinson, spokesman for the state Department of Health and Social Services. Health workers will interview as many of the afflicted people as possible and collect stool and vomit samples in an attempt to identify the bug, Wilkinson said.
The school district has provided a list of names and phone numbers for those affected by the acute gastroenteritis, commonly called "stomach flu, said Joe McLaughlin, a physician with the state Division of Epidemiology. McLaughlin said health workers will conduct interviews and try to get samples over the weekend. Part of the investigation is to determine things the ill people have in common, he said.
"For example, different restaurants that they ate at, or what grade they're in, if they're school children, perhaps what classrooms they were in," McLaughlin said. "We try to identify common exposures among cases."
That process, and comparisons to people who did not get sick but were maybe in the same areas or similarly exposed, will hopefully allow the epidemiologists to pinpoint what caused the outbreak to start, McLaughlin said.
While the two high schools showed a clear uptick in the number of similar cases, the epidemiologists were aware of six schools -- possibly including elementary, middle schools and other high schools -- with increased reports of the same symptoms, McLaughlin said. School district officials did not confirm cases among any schools other than Service and Dimond.
School district spokeswoman Heidi Embley said intense cleaning with "hospital-grade" cleaning products is under way at both high schools.
Analysis of any samples collected will likely identify what is causing the outbreak by mid-week next week if it is a virus, McLaughlin said. For now, though, the epidemiologists only suspect norovirus, because of the sudden onset and the symptoms, he said.
If they're right, McLaughlin said the illness will likely spread to others outside of the schools.
"If this is norovirus, it's sort of expected we'll have secondary cases," he said. "It's one of those diseases that can spread like wild fire, very quickly."
Meantime, anyone suffering from nausea, vomiting or diarrhea is advised to stay hydrated with water or a sports beverage packed with electrolytes, Wilkinson said. If the person seems gaunt, dehydrated or otherwise fails to recover within two days, they should contact a physician, he said. Using bleach-based cleaners to sanitize household surfaces, doorknobs and anything else people physically contact regularly will likely help stop the illnesses' spread, Wilkinson said. Washing hands is also highly recommended, he said.
"The bug has to run its course. You want to keep them comfortable and you want to keep them hydrated," he said. "Most kids, both kids and adults, they're going to have a couple nasty days and then they'll be OK."
Reach Casey Grove at firstname.lastname@example.org  or 257-4589.
An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that 10th graders too ill to finish standardized state tests could retake the test in one of two makeup sessions. Any student in grades 10 to 12 can retake any part of the test they do not pass in either a fall or spring makeup session, but there are no more retake opportunities this school year, the School District said.
By CASEY GROVE