City, NU take closer look at student pink eye outbreaks

Evan Hessel

City, NU conduct Web survey to investigate pink eye strain

The Evanston Health Department and Northwestern Health Service are conducting an online survey to investigate the origin of the viral pink eye strain that infected 94 students on the Evanston campus in April and continues to spread.

The health department sent a bulk e-mail to all NU undergraduate students Wednesday urging them to complete the 15-question survey linked to the health service’s Web site,

The survey includes questions about where students live, if they had been diagnosed with pink eye and if they traveled outside of the continental United States during Spring Break.

Health service and Evanston officials hope the survey will highlight common traits of people diagnosed with pink eye, or conjunctivitis, to determine its possible origins on campus, said Elizabeth Fleckenstein, director of nursing for the health service.

NU’s strain of pink eye was uncommon for the Midwest during March and April, prompting health officials to investigate the possibility that the disease was brought to Evanston from another geographic area, said Mary Scott, communicable disease coordinator for Evanston Health Department.

The strain infecting most students usually is reported only in warmer climates during the spring.

The survey was a result of the Illinois Infectious Disease Rapid Response team and Evanston Health Department’s concerns over the nearly 350 percent increase of reported pink eye cases from March to April, Scott said.

“People were coming into the clinic with pink eye and talking about other people they knew who had pink eye but weren’t coming in,” she said.

After several students came to Searle Student Health Service for treatment in April, the university conducted laboratory tests that revealed the strain of pink eye spreading through campus was viral rather than bacterial.

“Viral pink eye is not particularly serious. It won’t kill you,” Scott said. “The problem is that it’s ugly, red and watery, and it could get worse if you rub it.”

The city of Evanston has posted a fact sheet on its Web site,, stating that pink eye is contagious and spreads from people touching anything that has touched the tears or discharge from the eyes of an infected person.

No cure exists for viral pink eye, though infected people can use lubricating eyedrops to reduce symptoms.

Fleckenstein said pink eye continues to spread on campus, with Searle doctors treating new cases daily.

Evanston doctors report that the number of pink eye infections among Evanston residents is consistent with March and April totals for previous years, Scott said. The outbreak at NU has been contained, she said.

The recent outbreak on campus might prove to be a valuable experience for the health service and the Evanston Health Department, as the two haven’t had much experience working together, Scott said.

“We are learning how to work together and deal with something that is widespread through the community, and who knows, maybe the next time it will be life threatening,” she said.