ATHENA - Nearly 23 percent of Athena-Weston students missed school Friday due to an illness which county health officials suspect may be the Norwalk virus that has been causing problems all over the state.

The large number of illnesses prompted cancellation of several Weston-McEwen High School sports events this weekend.

In all, 135 of the district's approximately 600 students were absent Friday. Of those, 65 were high schoolers, 40 from the middle school and about 30 elementary schoolers.

Two teachers, one from the high school and one from Athena-Weston Middle School, also missed school because of illness Friday, said Paula Ruffcorn, deputy clerk for the school district.

"We've had kids in and out with this since last Friday," Ruffcorn said.

Because so many students were ill, Friday's softball doubleheader with Pilot Rock was postponed, today's baseball doubleheader at Sherman was canceled, and a junior varsity baseball game against Riverside also was postponed.

Ruffcorn and Umatilla County public health officials said there is no link between the illnesses and food in the district's two cafeterias (one in Athena for the high school and elementary school and one in Weston for the middle school).

Genni Lehnert, administrator for Umatilla County Public Health, said most people have been complaining of headaches, nausea, vomiting and diarrhea. These are all symptoms of the Norwalk virus, which became a household word when it wreaked havoc on cruise ship passengers in 2002.

"Based on the symptoms we've heard from people and the amount of time they last, we suspect that's what it is," Lehnert said.

The Norwalk virus is highly contagious and fast-moving. It strikes suddenly with symptoms lasting 24-48 hours, Lehnert said, noting the virus is not a form of the flu.

She added that while the outbreak in Athena-Weston is one of the largest she's seen in Umatilla County and the first to hit a large portion of a school district, the virus is not uncommon.

"It's always present, common throughout the year," Lehnert said. "It's not season-specific."

Health officials recommend washing hands often to avoid the spread of the virus, particularly if you have been around someone contagious.

"It's a pretty complicated virus, and we wish we understood it better," she said.

Making sure to disinfect countertops, tabletops, door knobs and any other surfaces people regularly come into contact with is recommended to avoid contact with the virus, Lehnert added. She also suggests washing all bedding and towels.

"It's important not to share eating or drinking utensils either," Lehnert noted.

Umatilla County Public Health sent a communicable disease nurse to the Athena-Weston schools to distribute surveys to students and staff to document their symptoms for Public Health records.

Surveys are also available at the Athena Store. Those surveys can be mailed back to Public Health, 200 S.E. Third Street, Pendleton, OR 97801.

Contact Public Health with any questions.

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