Water in Havelock North, New Zealand has been infected with a “horrific” waterborne illness so devastating that all of the town’s schools have been closed.
Around 2,000 people have become sick from the Campylobacter bacteria. According to the area’s mayor, Lawrence Yule, this is the largest outbreak of its kind in New Zealand history.
At least 180 people presented to a general practitioner and the local hospital admitted 19 patients for further care, two of which were in critical condition in intensive care. All test results were positive for Campylobacter, reports Radio New Zealand, which is usually spread from animal feces.
On Friday, 25% of the high school’s students called in sick. By Monday, that number had increased to about half. Even those who made it to school were getting sick and then being sent home.
Closed schools include Havelock North High School, Havelock North Intermediate, Te Mata School, Havelock North Primary School, and Lucknow Primary School. Two private schools, Iona College and Woodford House, closed as well, reports the Otago Daily Times.
Kayla Vivian, the mother of a seven-year-old, said her son started getting sick last Monday or Tuesday. She said:
We started with a headache, vomiting, fever. The headache has got worse and worse and worse. We finally stopped vomiting, stopped headaches, stopped the fever and now we’ve had non-stop diarrhoea…
According to the South China Morning Post, the elderly and children are particularly vulnerable, and many residents are angry that they were not warned earlier about the contaminated water.
At around 10am, there had been a suspicious test of the water, but the council had to be sure something was wrong so the DHB called up schools and found out that a number of children were sick. The decision was made to chlorinate the water and issue a “boil water” notice. These decisions were publicized, but poorly, beginning at 6pm.
The council has also brought in tankers of uncontaminated water so residents can fill their containers from the street, reports Simon Hendry of Stuff.
Next, experts will be aiming to find the source of the contamination.
Age Concern board member Wayne Bradshaw said:
[The Hastings District Council] knew about it midday on Friday. It didn’t get into that [public] arena until seven o’clock and that was only through press release. Not everyone has computers, not everyone looks at computers at seven o’clock on a Friday night.
They didn’t ring up the rest homes as they should have. If they’d responded sooner, at say one or two in the afternoon, they could have run up the rest homes, rung up the schools, rung up the childcare centers– they could have said “look, we’ve got a problem and you need to know about it.”
The council will be holding an independent inquiry into the contamination and how it happened.
Prime Minister John Key may hold the Ministry of Health responsible for conducting its own inquiry.
This is the third case in three years of bacteria in the town’s water supply, after E coli was discovered in 2013 and 2015.