While public health attention has been focused on Salmonella Saintpaul in tomatoes and E. coli O157:H7 in ground beef, the ever-present norovirus has quietly been striking down restaurant patrons and cruise line passengers.
Last week, approximately 60 restaurant patrons and 40 employees of an Illinois golf club complained of nausea and other "flu-like symptoms" after eating, visiting or working in the dining area of the Arrowhead Golf Club. Specimens obtained from ill employees were found to contain norovirus. The dining area was closed for thorough cleaning and disinfection. It is expected to reopen this evening.
This past week, between 80 and 90 people attending a bible camp near Oakhurst, California were stricken with diarrhea and vomiting. No lab results are available, but local health officials are attributing the outbreak to norovirus.
Norovirus is well known for the outbreaks of gastroenteritis it has caused in the past on cruise ships. And 2008 has been no exception. Norovirus has been responsible for seven out of eight cruise ship outbreaks of gastroenteritis so far. A ninth outbreak is still under investigation.
One cruise line in particular – Holland America Line – seems to be particularly susceptible to norovirus outbreaks this year. Four of the norovirus outbreaks have involved Holland America ships: the Volendam, the Noordam, the Ryndam, and the Zaandam. A fifth Holland America ship, the Veendam, is the setting for the outbreak that is still under investigation.
Norovirus is a highly contagious pathogen, and can survive on surfaces such as hand rails and door knobs for days. Staying healthy in the midst of a shipboard outbreak is difficult, but possible. To avoid illness, it is essential to be scrupulous about frequent and careful hand-washing, especially before eating, drinking, brushing teeth or any other activities that might bring the hands in contact with the face.