Last year, 83 Georgia Tech students were diagnosed with a form of pneumonia in a three-month period.
It was the largest such outbreak at a U.S. university in 35 years. Five students were hospitalized.
News of the illnesses did not surface in the Atlanta media, though the prestigious school is near the heart of the city. And despite communications about the outbreak through university email and social media, even many students at Tech didn’t know about it after that information campaign.
The pneumonia cases were diagnosed from Sept. 1 through Dec. 4, according to a report by public health officials, published Thursday by the CDC.
In November, Georgia Tech officials alerted students, faculty and staff members to the outbreak of Mycoplasma pneumoniae through emails, social media and posters.
Yet the next month, half the students surveyed were still unaware of the outbreak.
One of the authors of the report, Dr. Melissa Tobin-D’Angelo, an epidemiologist with the state Department of Public Health, said Thursday that communications with university students on health problems “is something that needs to be explored more.”
Students in the survey overwhelmingly – 89 percent – said they preferred information sent through email, she noted.
Early outbreak recognition is critical because control measures can limit transmission and complications, said the report, published in the CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.
Georgia Tech officials could not be reached for comment Thursday.
M. pneumoniae is a common cause of respiratory infection among children and young adults. It causes up to 40 percent of all cases of community-acquired pneumonia. These outbreaks can be prolonged because of the long incubation period (up to 3 weeks), meaning that individuals may spread the disease even before they are aware they are ill.
M. pneumoniae is spread through respiratory droplets. Nationally, there are an estimated 2 million cases annually.
Public Health officials said it’s somewhat difficult to diagnose, especially during flu season. State officials notified other schools and hospitals in metro Atlanta once the outbreak was reported.
In early November, Public Health provided Georgia Tech some recommendations to curtail the outbreak, including an outreach campaign to alert the university community and education regarding preventive health behaviors to reduce the spread of illness.
The communications featured information about how to prevent respiratory illness, including proper hand hygiene, respiratory hygiene, and staying home and seeking medical care when ill with a cough and fever.
The report concludes, “More research is needed to determine the most effective ways to communicate these messages to university students.”
A spokeswoman for Public Health, Nancy Nydam, said Thursday that there’s no simple, uniform strategy for communicating with university students. She noted that many Tech students live off campus and may be more difficult to reach.
The report said awareness could be improved by sending multiple emails and text messages with attention-getting words (e.g., “outbreak” or “pneumonia”) in the subject line, and by the use of informal social networks, such as announcements at group activities or in classes.
Effective communications, coupled with university policies that facilitate students staying home and seeking medical care when ill, may reduce transmission of M. pneumoniae and the severe complications that can go with it, the report said.
The CDC’s recommendations for preventing respiratory infections include washing hands regularly, cleaning hard surfaces that are touched often (like doorknobs and countertops), and coughing or sneezing into a tissue or into the crook of the arm or the sleeve.
People can also reduce their risk of pneumonia by limiting exposure to cigarette smoke and treating and preventing conditions like diabetes and HIV/AIDS, the CDC says.