By: James Peacock
Norovirus outbreaks have been in the news quite a bit over the last few months. It started when the CDC warned that incidence rates of Norovirus may increase throughout the month of February. The CDC and other health officials also warned that these increased incidence rates would continue into the spring. This warning was accompanied by reports from across the nation that Norovirus outbreaks were occurring. The CDC hardly had to wait before being proven correct. There have been a couple of outbreaks since the original warnings, most notably in Santa Monica. That outbreak, which the Santa Monica-Malibu United School District expected to wrap up quickly, has actually continued to pick up steam. In just the past week, another 100 new cases of Norovirus were reported in the school district. These cases are added to the 200 cases of Norovirus poisoning already identified. This outbreak began over 2 months ago, when students from John Adams Middle School returned from a trip to Yosemite with several cases of Norovirus poisoning.
The Santa Monica outbreak is not the only new outbreak associated with the rise in Norovirus incidence rates this year. There was also recently a Norovirus outbreak in Denver, Colorado. Like in Santa Monica, the Denver outbreak took place in a school. Denver Public Schools has said that more than 3 dozen students have been calling in sick. The school involved in the outbreak, Oakland Elementary School, sent 32 students home in one day. At least one employee of the school has also caught a Norovirus infection. This one employee and 3 students make up the confirmed cases of Norovirus poisoning, but health officials believe many of those who were staying home are also being affected by Norovirus poisoning. The outbreak may have been occurring for some time before it was detected, as some students have reported illnesses coming and going. One student in particular has reported that they have had 3 Norovirus infections in the last 2 months. The outbreak is believed to have been caused by the salad bar located in the school’s cafeteria. The school closed the salad bar after the outbreak became apparent. The salad bar would remain closed until health officials inspected it. The school also sent letters home with students unaffected by the outbreak that both thoroughly explain the situation and explain that prevention is the best way to limit the spread of Norovirus. Health officials were called in, and two separate deep cleaning sessions were done to remove any trace of foodborne illness pathogen from the cafeteria
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 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. Because of this, Norovirus outbreaks tend to infect many people in a short period of time, and also tend to burn themselves out. 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.
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. When a Norovirus infection worsens, it 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, as well as overly salty foods. If you or a loved one begin to show the symptoms of Norovirus poisoning, contact a medical professional.