By: James Peacock

The Washington State Department of Health announced recently that it was investigating an outbreak of Norovirus associated with people eating raw oysters. These reports come from all over the state, though it is unknown exactly just how many cases of Norovirus are being reported. As number of reported illnesses has increased, it has become more and more clear where the contamination is coming from. Having tracked down the harvest areas responsible for the contamination, there were several small recall associated with this outbreak. Shellfish that were harvested from the closed areas were recalled on March 2, April 4, and April 5.

Then, one of the larger closures took place. Hammersley Inlet, located in Mason County, was a much larger area to be closed. In the Inlet is a three mile long stretch of shellfish growing beds, much of which is harvested by commercial organizations. The shellfish harvested from these growing beds are shipped to restaurants and grocery stores across the United States and even internationally. All shellfish harvested from these locations between March 15 and April 11, 2017 are subject to the recall. More than 30 companies harvest from this area, including Calm Cove Shellfish Company, Sea Fresh Farms, Clearwater Shellfish, Schreiber Shellfish, Gomez Shellfish, Salazar Shellfish, Goodro Shellfish, S and B Shellfish company, National Fish and Oyster Company, Navy Yard Oyster Company, Russ Shellfish, Rivera’s Shellfish, Padden Seafood. These companies have been working with health officials to track down products that have already been shipped to customers.

Health officials are working hard to track down cases and potentially contaminated products. Rick Porso, Director of the Office of Environmental Health and Safety, has said that “[They] are actively evaluating all potential pollution sources in the area to determine what is causing the contamination. The area will remain closed until we can assure that public health is protected. This issue underscores the importance of protecting our marine water, especially in areas where shellfish are grown.” These health officials in the Pacific Northwest have had their hands full recently, as this is not the first oyster related outbreak in recent times. Earlier this year, a few Norovirus cases were connected to oysters from an oyster farm. Even these cases, though, were overshadowed by a large outbreak in Canada. More than 200 people were sickened by Norovirus after consuming raw oysters. It is important to remember that when raw foods are consumed, the risk of developing an illness is exponentially higher. Foods need to be cooked thoroughly in order to make certain that there i no contamination. More information of this can be found below.

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.

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. 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.