Tests point to virus as cause of group’s illness

Published 2:58 pm Monday, May 31, 2010

Alabama Department of Public Health officials believe a highly contagious virus caused an outbreak of illness among a large group of children who visited Oak Mountain State Park May 27.

Karen Sullivan, public information officer for the ADPH, said a stool sample collected from one of the sick children tested positive for norovirus, which is exclusively a human-carried virus.

“We feel like the water was an enhancement of the way it was spread,” Sullivan said. “If one child had it, then it could be spread through a large group very quickly. It could have been airborne, it could have spread through the water or through direct contact.”

Debbi Spradlin, administrator of Everest Academy Homeschooling, said a group of 300 students and parents from across the state gathered Thursday, May 27 to enjoy a day at Oak Mountain State Park. According to Spradlin, many kids returned to their homes only to experience vomiting and diarrhea the next day.

Crystal Pruitt’s son, Rodd Hannah, remains in the hospital after a long night of sickness Friday.

“I thought it was just him – I just thought he had caught a bug,” Pruitt said.

Spradlin said it wasn’t just Rodd. She said 82 people total from the group have reported similar symptoms.

Oak Mountain Park Superintendent Vicky Nelson said she first heard of the illnesses around noon Saturday, May 29. She said she feels confident however that the water is safe for people to enjoy.

“We have not closed down the beach. The department of public health has come out and done three tests on the water and they have all come back negative,” Nelson said.

Sullivan said tests ran for the bacterias enterococcus and coliform, but results from those tests are still pending. Sullivan said the stool samples have not shown samonella, something parents believed to have caused their children’s illnesses.

Pruitt said her son Rodd began violently throwing up Friday evening and continued to do so all night. He also suffered from diarrhea and became lethargic from what Pruitt said was dehydration. Saturday morning she rushed Rodd to the hospital.

Christine Ecklund from Madison had two children fall ill after the outing.

Her daughter Jacqueline, 13, was treated at Huntsville Hospital, where she was given fluids. Ecklund said doctors cautioned her to make sure the illness didn’t spread through the family.

“They told us to expect for the girls to be sick for one to two weeks. They sent us a whole list of stuff we need to do to keep the rest of the family from getting sick,” Ecklund said.

Nelson said between May 21 and May 29 more than 15,500 guests came through the gates at the park. She said so far this is the only group she’s aware of that has gotten sick.

Sullivan said the investigation is not over. The ADPH is still taking samples and interviewing families.

“We regret that all of these kids have gotten sick

“We’re working very diligently to get out public information about how highly contagious the norovirus can be.”

Spradlin and the parents of the children hospitalized said they have been disappointed with the response from Oak Mountain staff.

“They refused to take my name and its really frustrating they didn’t immediately offer to test the water,” Ecklund. “Its not that I want to crucify them, I’m just worried about other kids.”

Nelson said she reported the cases to her supervisor in Montgomery as soon as she could, but because there were no other individuals or groups claiming illness there didn’t seem to be an immediate threat to the public. She said she’s spoken to multiple people who use the lake on a daily basis to swim and fish who have not become ill.

“The department of public health categorizes the beach differently from say swimming polls because it is a natural lake with geese and birds and fish,” Nelson said. “We do have signs that say ‘Enter the water at your own risk.’ But I feel good about going out there and going swimming myself.”