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Frequently Asked Questions
About Illness Outbreak

This update was created on March 17, 1998, by Pat Harrison, R. N., C. I. C., infection control nurse at Huntsville Memorial Hospital, along with the Texas Department of Health.

What happened in Huntsville?

From March 10 through 13, 125 students at Sam Houston State University went to the Huntsville Memorial Hospital and to the student health center complaining of symptoms such as vomiting, stomach cramps, and diarrhea. These symptoms are often due to food poisoning. On the 11th, the hospital staff notified the Huntsville city health inspector of a possible outbreak, and the health inspector called the Texas Department of Health (TDH) to ask for assistance. On March 12, public health staff from Austin and Houston offices of TDH arrived in Huntsville to begin an outbreak investigation. On March 15, workers from the Center for Disease Control (CDC) in Atlanta arrived in Texas to help with the outbreak study, which is still on-going.

How does the health department study such an outbreak?

The first thing the public health workers do is to try to figure out what kind of outbreak it is. Some outbreaks are food borne (hepatitis A, salmonellosis, shigellosis); some are air borne (influenza, Legionnaire's disease); and others are transmitted by insects such as mosquitoes (encephalitis, dengue). Since the students seemed to have food poisoning, public health workers are doing studies to see what type of germ (bacteria, virus, parasite) might have caused the outbreak.

What is the health department doing to find out if it was food poisoning or not?

Two things. First, to find a clue to what made people sick, public health workers are talking to many sick and well people to see what they remember eating. We can see if the sick people ate things different from the well people. Perhaps we can find out that the sick people ate something that the well people did not eat. This is called an epidemiological study. Second, laboratory tests must also be done to try to find the cause. Scientists at TDH and CDC are studying stool samples from patients and food samples from the school. These samples have to be prepared, then shipped to labs in Austin and Atlanta, then grown in the laboratory. Once a germ is growing, it must be analyzed. This process often takes weeks.

What do we know so far?

It's too soon to know much yet. But the lab workers believe that the germs are probably not E. coil 0157 (the type of E. coil that has been in the news so much in recent years). The germs causing this outbreak could still be other kinds of E. coil, other kinds of bacteria, viruses, or parasites.

How long does it take to find out the cause of the outbreak?

We hope that the public health workers will have an answer later this week or the first of next week. However, in some outbreaks, we can never find out the cause, no matter how many tests and studies we do. We will keep looking as long as we have tests to run.

If this does turn out to be food poisoning, what are some common causes of food poisoning?

Food poisoning can be caused by bacteria, bacterial toxins, or viruses in the food. Sometimes, it can be caused by parasites.

How do the bacteria or viruses that cause food poisoning get in the food?

  • They might get on crops while in a field or into food while it's being processed in a factory.
  • They can also get into food after it gets to the kitchen (either at home or in a restaurant). For example, raw meat often has germs in it. Although the germs die when you thoroughly cook the meat, if you forget to carefully clean everything that touched the meat, other foods can get contaminated and make you or your family sick.
  • Sometimes there is a problem with plumbing or chlorination and germs get into the drinking water. Usually when this happens, many people get sick.
How does one person pass viruses or bacteria to another person in food poisoning?

A food handler who is sick can forget to thoroughly wash his hands after going to the bathroom. Then germs from his hands can get into the food.

How can a person sick with food poisoning keep from making others sick?

The sick person can be very careful to wash his hands with hot water and soap many times a day, especially after going to the bathroom and before eating. People who are around the sick people should do the same to keep from getting the germs.

What are some ways we know food poisoning is NOT spread?

  • Not by anything in the air conditioning or heating system.
  • Not by talking to someone.
  • Not by coughing or sneezing on someone.
Many diseases are spread these ways, but not food poisoning.

How do doctors treat food poisoning?

It depends on whether the food poisoning is from a virus or bacteria. People with food poisoning mostly need fluid and rest. Occasionally, antibiotics are useful. Most people recover from food poisoning within 2-3 days, although with some germs, people stay sick for as long as 5-10 days.

What is the university doing to make sure students will be safe when they return from spring break?

Since it looks like the outbreak was caused by food poisoning, the university has thrown out all open containers of food (not used in the sampling). Only unopened and new containers of food will be used when the kitchens re-open next week. Also, the health department will do inspections of all the kitchens on Sunday, March 22, just before the kitchens re-open after spring break.

What should people do if they think they have food poisoning connected with this illness outbreak?

In this situation, people should call the Sam Houston State University outbreak hotline at (409) 294-1826. For future reference, anyone who suspects they may have food poisoning must see a doctor. To tell what kind of food poisoning someone may have, a doctor has to do tests on their stool. If it appears that there is an outbreak, doctors and other medical professionals are required by law to report this to their local health department. The health department needs to be called immediately any time a group of people become ill at the same time and possibly from eating at the same place.


Media Contact: Frank Krystyniak
March 17, 1998 Please send comments, corrections, news tips to

This page maintained by SHSU's Office of Public Relations
Director: Frank Krystyniak
Media Relations Specialist:Phillip Rollfing
Located in the SHSU University Advancement Building
Telephone: (409) 294-1836; Fax: (409) 294-1834
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