A total of 381 students from a private school have been hospitalised in Jilin, northeast China, after showing symptoms of vomiting, diarrhoea, and fever, according to the local government.

Students from the No.2 Experimental School in Fuyu, Jilin, fell ill on Tuesday night, according to a statement posted on the government’s official WeChat account by the chief of the Fuyu party committee’s PR department. He said that that 125 had been sent home from the hospital by 5pm on Thursday, and none of others were in life-threatening danger.

But the same department also told the Legal Evening News in a piece published Thursday night that only around 100 students remained in the hospital as of Thursday afternoon.

Medical staff later found excessive bacteria counts in the school’s filtered water supply, and norovirus in students’ vomit.

More than 10,000 students are enrolled at the school, with about 8,000 boarding on campus, according to state news agency Xinhua. It also said that water is provided to the campus through a pipeline, and the school’s water supply has been switched off.

An article posted online by a user claiming to be a student from the school said students noticed on Sunday evening that the building’s water taps were emitting a stench “similar to the fecal smell of sewers,” according to one of Sohu’s public WeChat news accounts.

The student said that the congee and buns from the school canteen made with the water also had an abnormal taste. Later, the drinking water had a gross smell too.

The writer claimed that students started experiencing symptoms such as stomachaches, vomiting and fevers, and that the number of sick students increased throughout Monday and Tuesday. The washrooms and infirmary were filled with sick students. Finally classes were cancelled on Wednesday.

An unnamed source in Fuyu city’s health organs told US-backed Radio Free Asia that the authorities were restricting information, and that even medical workers did not know how many students in total were affected. Many students were transferred to hospitals in nearby cities for treatment, the source said.

Student receiving treatment in the hospital. Photo: Provided to RFA.

One parent told RFA that the school should take responsibility for the matter “How could the water quality have this kind of pollution issue? We parents are all very shocked. Never mind education, there are problems even with the kids’ basic food and water. How could we leave our kids at school without worrying?”

The city government said the cause of students’ illness is under investigation.

Norovirus is a highly contagious virus associated with outbreaks on cruise ships or in restaurants, schools, and communities. It can cause vomiting, diarrhea, stomach pain, and fever, and is spread through contaminated food or liquid, contact with infected people, and touching contaminated surfaces. The virus can enter water supplies through sewage overflows, faulty sewage systems, and polluted storm water runoff.

Catherine Lai

Catherine is a Canadian journalist and photographer who lived in Beijing for almost two years, working in TV and online media. Aside from Hong Kong and mainland affairs, she is also interested in urban spaces, art and feminism. She holds a BA in Literature and Art History from the University of British Columbia.