Monday, October 27, 2008

Norovirus Revisited

Georgetown University marked the beginning of October this year with an outbreak of Norovirus. The virus struck down as many as 204 students – out of a student population of 6,000 – with nausea, vomiting and diarrhea during the first five days of the month.

The District of Columbia Department of Health issued its final report on the incident last week. Based on interviews with outbreak victims, DOH epidemiologists have pointed a statistical finger at the "Grab and Go" food station in O'Donovan Hall. According to their analysis "...  students who purchased food from the Grab and Go station on were 2.9 times more likely to become ill than those who did not purchase food from the Grab and Go station."

Coincidentally, Norovirus popped up at another university campus – University of Vermont – last week. As of last Friday, about 60 students have been reported ill. Once again, an on-campus dining hall is being fingered as the probable point of origin of the outbreak. The Vermont Department of Public Health is participating in the investigation.

Not to appear elitist, Norovirus also put in an appearance at an elementary school this month. Approximately 150 students at Tussing Elementary School in Colonial Heights, VA complained of stomach pains, nausea and vomiting on October 16th. Classes were cancelled on the 17th so that the school could be thoroughly cleaned and sanitized. Lab analysis confirmed Norovirus as the culprit. According to the Chesterfield Health District, the source of this outbreak was person-to-person spread.

Meanwhile, Dunedin Hospital and Hutt Hospital in New Zealand continue their respective battles against separate Norovirus outbreaks. The Otago District Health Board estimates that the earlier outbreaks at Dunedin and Wakari hospitals cost the board NZ$276,000. That cost will rise with the new outbreak at Dunedin.

Two more hospitals in the UK also reported Norovirus outbreaks last week. Countess of Chester Hospital (Cheshire, UK) was forced to close a cardiology ward after seven patients began to suffer from nausea and diarrhea. Two of the patients were confirmed to have been infected with Norovirus. And two wards in Edith Cavell Hospital (Peterborough, UK) remain closed to new admissions in an effort to control an outbreak of Norovirus in that hospital.

Finally, just to show its fun-loving side is still intact, Norovirus turned up on a cruise ship last week. The Caribbean Princess arrived at Halifax, Nova Scotia last week. Among the 4,250 passengers and crew on board the ship were 105 passengers and three crew members who were suffering from diarrhea, nausea and vomiting. Norovirus can turn up on the best of ships. The Caribbean Princess aced its most recent inspection under the CDC's Vessel Sanitation Program.

Whether on a cruise ship, in a school dorm, or anywhere else large numbers of people are in close quarters, the best way to protect oneself against a Norovirus infection is frequent hand-washing and careful attention to personal hygiene. And it's not a bad idea to avoid buffet-service. You never know who has touched – or tasted – the food.

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