The University should provide more warning in cases of potential health hazards
In late October, health officials in St. Louis notified the general public of an E. coli outbreak in the region. Speculation pointed toward lettuce at five Schnucks supermarkets as the source of the deadly bacteria (which is now not proven), and officials from both the Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control were summoned to St. Louis for investigation and treatment. On Tuesday, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported that 30 cases were confirmed in the area. According to information from the Mayo Clinic, healthy adults will usually recover from an E. coli infection, but severe cases can lead to life-threatening forms of kidney failure.
Despite this risk in an area so proximate to Washington University, school officials did not inform the community of contamination. Although we recognize that the risk of E. coli infections to most college-aged men and women is relatively low, a lack of formal notice from University officials fails to take advantage of the resources that already exist for events like these.
Most students are familiar with the University’s emergency notification system, primarily through emails and text messages we receive during its periodic testing. The system is intended not only to inform students of major threats to safety such as an armed intruder, but also more manageable situations like severe weather. The threat from an E. coli contamination at local grocery stores seems to coincide with the purposes of this system. Had the University lacked a vehicle to easily inform students about the threat of E. coli, perhaps it would have been understandable for it to remain silent; however, the means to inform students about a local E. coli contamination are clearly in place.
While repetitive text messages prompting students for a response to indicate receipt would be over the top, a University-wide email could have efficiently provided us with information about the bacteria, the health risks it poses, symptoms of an infection, and how to avoid coming in contact with the pathogen. While college-aged students often take it upon themselves to read local news, the assumption that perusal of local headlines would provide adequate information to all students about E. coli could be dangerous. An uninformed student could get extremely sick.
While some might argue that the threat of E. coli was not severe enough to warrant a notification from the University, this also raises the point that word from trusted officials might have calmed students unduly worried about risks to their health. A simple message that warned students of the potential risk of consuming E. coli-contaminated food could also provide assurance that the University does not sell food from tainted sources in campus eateries, or provide a list of safe restaurants and grocery stores for students to shop who frequently eat off campus. If the University took steps to protect its students from the dangerous bacteria, we were completely unaware.
In the future, the University should clarify major public health issues in the city of St. Louis for students. While the probability of serious health consequences may be low in these cases, taking preventative measures as simple as a mass email could save both students and faculty from consuming contaminated products.