On June 21, Abdul Nasser received a call from the local Taluk hospital in Koyilandi informing him that at least 30 students from his school had been admitted there. Nasser is headmaster of the Keezhpayyur West lower primary school in Kozhikode. The hospital had informed him as they observed an unusual number of patients from the same school, which confirmed a case of food poisoning.
“We noticed that a large number of students were missing on Friday. After we received the call from the Taluk hospital, we got in touch with parents to find out the exact number of patients,” Nasser told TNM. At least 20 students had been treated for severe vomiting and fever. A few of them had diarrhoea and the rest were admitted to the hospital based on the suspicion of food poisoning and milder symptoms.
Investigations into the food poisoning have now found Shigella bacteria to be the suspected cause of the bout. Shigella was detected in the stool samples of a few children, confirmed doctors at the Kozhikode medical college hospital.
Shigella is a family of bacteria which cause Shigellosis – an intestinal disease commonly affecting children below the age of five. The infection can cause acute diarrhoea and the bacteria spread through contaminated food or drinking and using contaminated water.
What is yet to be confirmed, however, is how the bacteria reached these children. Investigations by the health inspector, Assistant Education Officer and department of food safety have conducted probes to trace the source of the bacteria. The food safety department team even visited the school and inspected the food, water and utensils used by the children three times.
“Children eat rice, vegetable and egg/milk as part of the midday meal scheme. We have ruled out food as the cause of the bacteria as kids who attended school only earlier that week also fell sick. The food menu keeps changing on a daily basis. As for drinking water, it is provided only after boiling. A possible source of the bacteria could be the Panchayat pipe water which the children use in the loo and to wash hands, etc,” Nasser added.
“We use water from both our well and the pipe. Samples of both were tested and coliform levels were detected in the water coming from the Panchayat (pipe). The well water was cleared for use,” Nasser added.
Following the food poisoning bout, Kozhikode administration has called for stricter reviews of lunch served in government schools. Typically, food distribution in these schools is handled by a committee comprising of the PTA president, headmaster, gram panchayat ward members, two teachers and a student representative.
“We have appointed a teacher and a parent every day to supervise the food being prepared for children. There are 75 children in our school and the parents will take turns to supervise lunch preparation. This means that each parent will supervise 2-3 times if we work 200 days in an academic year,” Nasser added. Care will be taken to ensure that plates and utensils are cleaned thoroughly before use, drinking water is boiled and the quality of rice and vegetables is maintained in all government schools in the district.
“We have also decided to stop using the pipe water for now and will be using well water for the loos until the issue has been resolved,” Nasser added.