Health authorities called in after school camp gastro outbreak ‘spreads like wildfire’

A suspected gastroenteritis outbreak that hit a group of Melbourne students and their teachers as they returned home from an outdoor camp is being investigated by Victorian health authorities.

The illness first struck on the bus ride home from the week-long trip on Friday, February 24, when a group of Year 7 students and teachers from Yarra Valley Grammar started showing signs of illness, including vomiting and high temperatures.

About 60 of the 260 children who attended the camp at Marysville, in the Yarra Valley, eventually fell ill, with cases clustered around two classes.

Several children went to the emergency department, but have since recovered, according to correspondence between parents seen by The Age.

Authorities who are investigating the cluster of cases among students at the Ringwood school say the epidemiological pattern of the outbreak is so far suggestive of person-to-person transmission rather than food poisoning.

However, the department has instructed the Murrindindi Shire Council, which is leading the investigation into the outbreak, to check water sources and food preparation and management at the camp, following concerns raised by parents.

Yarra Valley Grammar principal Dr Mark Merry said the school would wait for the final health department report before drawing any firm conclusions, but noted a handful of the sick children’s immediate family members had also become unwell, adding to the suspicions the illness had been spread between people.

Dr Mark Merry, principal of Yarra Valley Grammar.

“What they’re intimating is that one or more of our kids went to camp, they had gastro, it spread like wildfire amongst the kids, and they’ve all copped it on the way home,” Merry said.

The camp was run by The Outdoor Education Group. Merry said the school had used the company for many years and had “always found them to be absolutely scrupulous with food safety”.

The chief executive of the Outdoor Education Group, Craig Richards, said that at 4pm on February 24 the company were informed of a small group of students who developed travel sickness after leaving Camp Marysville.

The next day, Richards said the company was told the number of ill students had increased, prompting them to contact the health department.

“Camp Marysville was cleared by the environmental health officer to continue operation based on hygiene measures and protocols. Council have indicated the epidemiological pattern of the outbreak is suggestive of person-to-person transmission of a viral pathogen,” Richards said.

“School camps are an experience people treasure for the rest of their lives, and we’re upset some students won’t have the memory they should.”

Around the same time as the outbreak of illness following the camp, the Victorian Health Department was reporting more outbreaks of viral gastroenteritis in the state’s childcare centres.

There were 103 outbreaks of viral gastroenteritis in childcare centres in the year to 21 February 2023. The five-year average from the same period was 69.

However, there is a group of parents who remain concerned the incident could be a case of food poisoning.

Correspondence from parents seen by The Age said several children had been taken to ED after falling ill, and some parents felt like their concerns about hygiene and food safety and quality at the camp had not been taken seriously enough.

One parent, who did want to be named because their child is still a student at the school, said they were upset they had not been contacted by authorities in the weeks since the incident.

The Victorian Health Department confirmed this week that it was still working with the local council, the Murrindindi Shire, and the camp operators to investigate the source of the outbreak.

“Person-to-person viral gastroenteritis outbreaks are not uncommon in settings such as schools, school camps, and childcare centres where children and young people gather,” a spokesperson said.

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