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Health Officials Stumped on Student Illness

November 12, 1990

BOULDER, Colo. (AP) _ An unknown disease sickened 300 University of Colorado students over the weekend, and state health officials said Sunday they suspected food poisoning but could find no common cause.

The illness, which broke out Friday night and continued to plague students Sunday at the on-campus Wardenburg Health Center, was characterized by vomiting, low-grade fever and diarrhea.

Officials said those symptoms suggest food poisoning, but the outbreak perplexed health officials because they had been unable to find a common food linking the cases. The students ate in several dormitory cafeterias, as well as off campus.

The majority of students were treated at Wardenburg for dehydration and sent home. Two were hospitalized Saturday night, but health center officials would not comment about them Sunday.

″It appears to be a food-borne illness outbreak, centered mostly in dorm residents,″ said Dennis Lenaway, an epidemiologist with the Boulder County health department.

Dr. Paul Simon, a state epidemiologist, agreed that it was probably food poisoning, but said health officials didn’t know what kind.

″It looks to me like it’s some sort of infectious disease - food poisoning caused by an infection,″ Simon said. ″But at this point we just don’t have enough information.″

If it is an infection-based outbreak, the students could have eaten the tainted food up to three days before becoming sick, Simon said.

″There are so many dorms involved,″ said Dr. Ingrid Hagan, Wardenburg’s chief of staff. ″I myself saw several patients that didn’t eat in the dorms, they ate off campus. We took only a very brief history as far as what they ate but there doesn’t seem to be a common denominator.″

An additional 15 to 18 students went to Boulder Community Hospital on Friday, said hospital spokeswoman Kathy Stephens. None of those students was hospitalized.

County health officials delivered questionnaires to the dormitories on Saturday in hope of pinpointing what caused the outbreak.

″We hope to narrow it down to a meal, or, even better, a food item. We’re hoping we can get that detailed,″ said Lenaway. ″We’ll just have to see how things sort themselves out.″

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