The health center usually expects to treat up to five cases of "walking pneumonia" each semester, so this fall's astounding 25 cases have left state and College health officials seeking an explanation.
"The fact that we have 25 cases highlights the fact that there is something going on that we have to investigate," said Dr. Jeffrey Maher, a contracted physician for the health center.
Yesterday, staff from the Dudley Coe Health Center, as well as representatives from the Athletic Department, Residential Life and the Office for the Dean of Student Affairs, met with two employees from the Maine Center for Disease Control (CDC) to discuss what might be causing the unusually high number of pneumonia cases.
The College first contacted the state CDC in September when the cases began to crop up. Both the Maine and U.S. CDC are aiding the College in this investigation.
Maher noted that because the health center staff and students are aware of pneumonia's presence on campus, they may be more likely to spot new cases than they would be otherwise.
"Looking harder might uncover more than you might find in a typical semester," Maher said.
Currently, there are six students who are acutely ill, one of which is hospitalized at Parkview Adventist Medical Center. One other student was hospitalized earlier this semester, and the other 18 students have recovered after being treated as outpatients with antibiotics.
Atypical pneumonia, or "walking pneumonia," involves cold-like symptoms, including a cough, low-grade fever, and general malaise, according to Geoff Beckett, assistant state epidemiologist for the CDC. However, the illness can be more serious for elderly people and people with other pre-existing health conditions.
Ironically, atypical pneumonia is the most common kind of pneumonia contracted by college students, according to Beckett.
"What's not typical here is that we're seeing large number of cases," Beckett added.
The Maine CDC began aiding the College by examining specimens from ill students to determine if there was a "common source outbreak," or a cause that could be recognized and easily controlled. When no such source was found, the CDC began its attempt to find the specific cause of the influx of cases. For now, the CDC is continuing to ask ill students for blood samples and throat and nose swabs to send in to the U.S. CDC for testing. According to Maher, "the investigation is ongoing."
According to CDC guidelines, normal precautionary measures should be taken to help avoid spreading pneumonia, including avoiding close contact with sick people, washing hands often, and covering coughs and sneezes well.
"As we get into flu season, we're going to use it as an opportunity to encourage people to practice good hygiene," Foster said.