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Published: Saturday, 8/14/2004

Outbreak of illness mystifies officials

BY STEVE MURPHY
BLADE STAFF WRITER

State and Ottawa County health officials are investigating a mysterious outbreak of gastrointestinal illness that appears to be striking residents and visitors to South Bass Island.

County health Commissioner Nancy Osborn said her office had documented 58 cases as of yesterday morning. The health department began receiving reports early last month of people suffering from 24-hour bouts of nausea, chills, fever, abdominal cramps, and vomiting, accompanied in some cases by diarrhea.

"It's a sudden onset," Ms. Osborn said. "You feel good, and you get kind of queasy and nauseated, and then you're vomiting."

A handful of the stricken people have required hospital treatment for dehydration, Ms. Osborn said.

So far, health officials don't know what the illness is, or what's causing it.

"We don't know what the causative organism is," the health commissioner said. "We don't know how it's being transmitted, though it appears to go from person to person in some sort of manner. Either people live in Put-in-Bay or they have visited Put-in-Bay - so far."

Nothing points to food or a specific establishment as being involved in the outbreak, Ms. Osborn said.

"People that we've interviewed have been in multiple places," she said. "We don't have a common place that these people might have visited and eaten something very similar. So none of that fits together at this point."

Ms. Osborn's office has sent stool samples from some of the stricken people to the Ohio Department of Health, which will analyze them and report results late next week, she said.

Health department staff visited the island on Tuesday and conducted two educational sessions for residents who work in health care, day care, and food service jobs, Ms. Osborn said. A third session, held for the public, attracted about 100 people.

Health officials recommend that people wash their hands frequently and thoroughly with soap and water.

"Just doing that prevents the spread of any diseases," Ms. Osborn said.

She also said that anyone with the outbreak's flulike symptoms should stay home to avoid infecting others. However, she said she sees no reason for tourists to avoid Put-in-Bay.

"We are not recommending that they don't go certain places or visit certain areas at this point," she said. "South Bass Island has hundreds of thousands of visitors, and right now we're talking about 60 who have ex-

hibited symptoms."

Put-in-Bay Mayor Mack McCann said inspections of the town's water and sewer systems have found no problems.

The mayor, who owns the Round House bar and other businesses on the island, expressed concern that the island is being identified as the common thread in the illnesses.

"We have 286 employees, and I did a survey the other day. We had one sick employee, and we're not even sure what they had, so I'm not sure it's everything they're saying it is," he said. "I'm not denying there are people getting sick on something, but I don't think it's time for anybody to blame anything."

Contact Steve Murphy at:

smurphy@theblade.com

or 419-724-6078.



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