By: James Peacock

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), in cooperation with state and local health officials across the country, has issued a warning for rising Norovirus incidence rates for all areas in the country. Norovirus is a foodborne illness that seems to cause more illnesses in the winter than any other season, and the CDC has said that this February will be especially dangerous. Most of the outbreaks Norovirus is responsible for come about between November and April. The reason for this yearly uptick in illnesses, though, has yet to be discovered by health officials. Nevertheless, this winter is projected to be one of the busiest winters in terms of Norovirus cases in recent memory, and has wasted no time in proving health officials right.

There have already been several outbreaks of Norovirus this winter, sparking warnings and increased awareness across the nation. A Norovirus outbreak was reported in Lexington, Massachusetts, where more than 200 students were sickened at a local Elementary School. The outbreak, which began in mid-January, eventually required a cleaning crew to be brought in to sanitize many areas in the school. Schools, daycares, and other places where crowds of people are present represents one of the largest risk factors in a Norovirus outbreak. This is mainly because Norovirus is a very contagious pathogen, and children often lack the necessary hygiene skills to prevent infections from spreading. The outbreaks at Bridge Elementary appears to have come to a close, and no other schools in the area are reporting elevated Norovirus levels.

In Spokane, Washington, another Norovirus outbreak has been reported. This time, though, the outbreak is in a homeless shelter. The House of Charity, a Catholic run homeless shelter, has had as many as 22 patrons report symptoms similar to Norovirus poisoning. Twelve of these cases were tested and confirmed by doctors. While health officials search for potential source of the outbreak, the House of Charity upped their policies regarding food safety, as well as implementing additional food safety measures.

Norovirus-like illnesses have also been reported in the Pacific Northwest. King County health officials are investigating an outbreak of Norovirus associated with raw oysters. In early January they were alerted to 4 cases of illness linked to raw oysters. Investigators have had slow progress with this investigation, as no other cases of illness have been connected to the oyster farm in question, and health officials were unable to find any issues that may lead to a potential contamination. However, the Seattle oyster Norovirus outbreak has been overshadowed by an outbreak with the same cause in Canada. More than 200 people in several provinces have been sickened with Norovirus, and many of them have reported that they ate raw oysters in the days prior to becoming sick.

Norovirus infections represent the most common source of foodborne illnesses in the United States. The Center for Disease Control estimates that there are between 19 and 21 million cases every year. Almost 2 million people are forced to contact a medical professional because of their Norovirus infection. Between 56,000 and 71,000 people are hospitalized every year because of Norovirus, and there are around 1,000 deaths annually. While Norovirus infections are common year round, more Norovirus infections are recorded in the winter months. The vast majority of Norovirus cases are spread from person to person, because the virus is among the most contagious of the foodborne pathogens. Outbreaks of Norovirus are commonly associated with leafy greens, fresh fruits, and shellfish. Foods can become contaminated with Norovirus at any point during the manufacturing, shipping, and cooking processes. Norovirus outbreaks are especially dangerous in areas where contact with other people are common. Healthcare facilities, schools, and daycares are some of the most common places that a Norovirus outbreak may take place. Cruise ships are also a common outbreak location. Like any foodborne pathogen, Norovirus outbreaks are also common at restaurants and catered events.

Although Norovirus is very contagious, there are methods and practices that can reduce the chance of a Norovirus infection taking place. The greatest risk of Norovirus poisoning is when someone is still symptomatic, or are in the first few days after recovering from the illness. Norovirus itself is almost exclusively transmitted through fecal matter, but this exposure can happen in several ways. Eating food or drinking something prepared by someone ill with Norovirus poisoning, being in contact with ill persons, and touching contaminated surfaces may all lead to a Norovirus infection. Norovirus being so easily spread makes hygiene one of the most important methods of preventing disease. Practicing proper hand washing will greatly reduce the risk of spreading the infection. For tips on how to practice proper hand washing, click here. Properly cooking foods is another way to reduce the chance of infection. Most meats must be cooked to an internal temperature of 165 degrees Fahrenheit in order to eliminate potential contaminates. Fish will often need to be cooked to a temperature of 145 degrees to achieve the same effect. A full list of proper cooking temperatures can be found here.

A case of Norovirus poisoning can cause inflammation in the stomach, as well as the intestines. Symptoms of Norovirus poisoning will begin to rise between 12 and 48 hours after the first exposure to the pathogen. Commonly, a Norovirus infection will produce symptoms including diarrhea, nausea, vomiting, and abdominal cramping. Fever, headaches, and body aches are less common symptoms but still possible. Most cases of Norovirus poisoning will clear up on its own within 3 days, but in some cases the illness may worsen. Norovirus can also cause dehydration, which will present with symptoms including decrease in urination, dry mouth, dizziness upon standing, and dry throat. Young children, the elderly, and those with suppressed immune systems are at an increased risk of contracting a serious case of Norovirus poisoning and becoming dehydrated. While there is no specific method of treating a Norovirus infection, many doctors will recommend rest and hydration to treat the illness. Coffee, alcohol, and other dehydrating liquids should be avoided. If you or a loved one begin to show the symptoms of Norovirus poisoning, contact a medical professional.