Wednesday, February 18, 2009

The Winter Vomiting Bug

February 18, 2009

Call it stomach flu; call it the winter vomiting bug; call it the nursing home bug, the cruise ship virus or the Norwalk virus. It makes no difference. You're talking about Norovirus. And it's a threat any time of the year and wherever large numbers of people cluster in confined areas.

Norovirus is a very rugged, highly infectious virus that strikes swiftly and without warning. People infected with Norovirus suffer a sudden onset of vomiting and diarrhea that lasts just a couple of days. The infection is rarely fatal, unless the victim is already enfeebled or susceptible to the effects of severe dehydration.

Norovirus is hardy, and can survive for days on dry surfaces such as hand rails, dish ware, books and clothing. It is transmitted by ingestion, usually when a victim touches an infected surface and then puts that hand to his or her mouth. Other means of transmission include eating food that has become contaminated with the virus – usually by an infected individual who has not yet begun to experience symptoms, or by a convalescing victim who is still shedding virus particles.

The virus has earned one of its nicknames – "the winter vomiting bug" – honestly. Because people are more likely to be confined indoors during winter months, infections are spread more easily. Similarly, nursing home residents are at risk any time of the year, as are cruise ship passengers. Captive audiences are grist for the Norovirus mill.

The following selection of 2009 headlines illustrate the conditions under which Norovirus thrives.

February 11, 2009. 1 Dead, 44 Ill in Nursing Home Gastro Outbreak.
February 12, 2009. 

January 29, 2009. Norovirus Spreads In Regina Hospital.
January 28, 2009. Norovirus Hits 2 Institutions In Saskatchewan.
January 8, 2009. Norwalk Virus Spreading On P.E.I.

Hong Kong
February 11, 2009. CHP Investigating a Gastroenteritis Outbreak at a Primary School

New Zealand
January 9, 2009. Norovirus Stops Visits To Retirement Village.

Republic of Ireland
January 9, 2009. Winter Bug Outbreak at Beaumont.

United Kingdom
February 13, 2009. Bristol Hospital Shuts Wards After Norovirus Outbreak.

United States of America
February 4, 2009. North Carolina Experiencing More Norovirus Outbreaks. Public Health Urges Precautions.
February 9, 2009. State Health Department Alerts Public of Viral Gastroenteritis Season (Commonly Called the "Stomach Flu")

Norovirus also can be transmitted through the consumption of raw or undercooked seafood. More than 25 residents of Sitka, Alaska reported suffering from acute gastroenteritis earlier this month. Four of the victims tested positive for Norovirus. Based on patient case histories, state health authorities suspect locally harvested oysters to be the source of the infections.

Cruise ship passengers have not been spared by the virus this year. According to CDC, four cruises originating or ending in a U.S. port of call have reported outbreaks of gastroenteritis among passengers and crew. Norovirus has been confirmed in one outbreak; results are still pending in the other three cases.

Is it any wonder that this virus has earned so many names?

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