Saturday, November 15, 2008

Norovirus Can Be Deadly

We usually think of Norovirus gastroenteritis outbreaks as messy and inconvenient. It's easy to forget that the dehydration that results from a bout of this illness can prove deadly.

Fifty-one of the 200 guests at a wedding held in Aberdeenshire (United Kingdom) on November 1st came away with more than just a piece of wedding cake. They received a dose of Norovirus. For most of the 51 victims, this was no more than the usual "winter vomiting bug" – uncomfortable, inconvenient, and soon over. But for one elderly guest, the encounter with Norovirus proved to be a killer.

Fortunately, most encounters with this highly infectious virus produce a happier ending. Staff members in hospitals and retirement homes, where the population tends to be more susceptible to severe dehydration, have learned to impose extraordinary isolation and sanitation measures immediately in response to even a single suspect case. 

In the last 2-3 weeks, Norovirus outbreaks have prompted ward closures and restrictions on visitors in the United Kingdom, Canada, the United States, and New Zealand. Earlier this fall – between mid-September and mid-October – nine clusters of Norovirus reported in the Netherlands, Italy, France and Ireland even struck down travelers who had become infected while visiting Lourdes.

Cruise ships are another favorite venue. In recent weeks, the virus struck 60 passengers on the Diamond Princess during its cruise of the Orient. And more than 14% of the 1,820 passengers on Holland America's Zuiderdam fell sick with Norovirus during a 17-day cruise that reached port on November 9th. Seventeen of the 794 crew members on that ship also were infected.

In short, Norovirus thrives on a captive audience – especially wherever a relatively large number of people are clustered in close quarters. The best defense against this highly infectious and very rugged virus is to pay extremely close attention to frequent and thorough hand washing, and to all other elements of personal hygiene. And as a friend discovered on a recent cruise, you might want to avoid the buffet. Think of how many different hands have touched the serving utensils.

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