Campus Contagion

Hand, foot and mouth disease is breaking out on numerous campuses, leaving students frustrated and campus officials struggling to contain the spread.

October 18, 2018

Hundreds of students are falling ill with hand, foot and mouth disease at colleges in the East.

The contagious viral infection spreads quickly and causes fever, sore throat and a rash on the mouth, hands and feet -- hence the name. Campuswide illness outbreaks are not uncommon -- in years past norovirus and mumps have plagued colleges -- but hand, foot and mouth is especially surprising given that it’s typically found in children who are under the age of 5.

"When you have populations that are in really close contact -- like college campuses or military bases -- it can spread easily," said Mark Reed, director of the Dartmouth College Health Service. Dartmouth, in New Hampshire, confirmed 50 cases this quarter, and Reed expects at least a few more.

"It has slowed down, so we probably won’t know for awhile [if it's contained], and my guess is that we’ll probably have some more cases through the quarter," he said.

According to the Mayo Clinic, the disease spreads easily through person-to-person contact of saliva, droplets in the air from a cough or sneeze, fluid from blisters, and feces. Once a person is infected, it can take three to six days to develop symptoms, which most often include a fever, sore throat, feeling unwell and blisters or a rash on the hands, feet and mouth. Symptoms usually subside after a few days and there is no specific treatment for the disease, although over-the-counter medications can help relieve fever and associated pain.

Johns Hopkins University was hit especially hard. Dennis O’Shea, a university spokesman, confirmed 120 cases of hand, foot and mouth disease as of Wednesday, up from 95 just five days earlier. The outbreak has not yet been contained.

“I’ve been here 28 years and I don’t recall this particular disease,” he said.

To combat the spread, Roanna Kessler, director of the student health and wellness center at the Homewood campus, has sent multiple emails to students and employees advising them to steer clear of infected peers, clean and disinfect surfaces, and wash their hands. She instructed infected students to stay home from class until symptoms disappear and asked faculty members to be “understanding if a student needs to miss classes or assignments due to illness.”

The university is also posting fliers and lawn signs around campus to warn students, and O’Shea mentioned that students are “pitching in” by sharing hand, foot and mouth disease-related memes on the college meme page. The closed Facebook group, which was aptly renamed to “Hand Foot and Mouth Disease Memes for Infected Teens,” has over 15,000 members.

Mike Thornhill, director of communications at Mars Hill University, in North Carolina, confirmed 15 cases of hand, foot and mouth disease. The most recent case was reported early last week, so Thornhill hopes the disease has since been contained.

During the two-week outbreak, Mars Hill attacked the virus. Staff cleaned and disinfected door handles, elevator buttons and other surfaces frequently. The dining hall temporarily replaced its usual dishware with paper plates and plastic cutlery. Infected students were told to stay in their rooms, had food delivered to them and were instructed not to attend class or extracurricular activities until their symptoms subsided.

“As with any college or university, we occasionally have colds, flu and other viral illnesses make the rounds,” Thornhill wrote in an email. “I'm not aware of any previous instances of hand, foot, and mouth virus, at least in the 14 years I've worked here.”

One hundred and sixteen infected students sought out student health services at Lehigh University between Sept. 3 and Oct. 12, according to Amy White, associate director of media relations.

Since then, "The number of cases has dropped dramatically with no new known cases since Oct. 11," she wrote in an email. This isn't the first time Lehigh University has dealt with hand, foot and mouth disease; in the fall of 2015, roughly half as many students were infected.

Students at multiple colleges are posting on Twitter to complain about the outbreaks and rip on their disease-ridden peers.

“Close to ordering a hazmat suit cause people on campus have hand foot and mouth disease,” one user tweeted.

“Advantages of going to Dartmouth include: being paranoid about every cough and sneeze because there is currently an outbreak of hand foot and mouth disease on campus,” another user wrote.

And another: “Happy #GlobalHandwashingDay to all the dirty ass people at Hopkins spreading Hand, Foot, Mouth Disease!"

Six students sought treatment for the disease at Princeton University, and cases have also been reported at Wesleyan University, though the exact numbers have not been confirmed.


Be the first to know.
Get our free daily newsletter.


We have retired comments and introduced Letters to the Editor. Share your thoughts »

Today’s News from Inside Higher Ed

Inside Higher Ed’s Quick Takes

Back to Top