The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recently announced that a new strain of norovirus, the GII4Sydney, is sweeping the United States. First reported in Australia in March 2012, the CDC reported that the strain caused 58 percent of norovirus infections in December 2012.
What is norovirus?
Norovirus is a common foodborne pathogen that originates in human or animal feces. There are as many as 21 million cases per year usually occurring between March and November. According to
CDC statistics, 51 percent of the incidences in the United States are from person-to-person contact and 20 percent from contaminated food. The virus can also be passed by touching contaminated surfaces.
Since norovirus coincides every year with the influenza season, it is often mistaken for the flu. Influenza is a respiratory infection that comes on quickly. Symptoms include fever, headache, fatigue, body aches, cough and general weakness. The worst of the flu lasts for several days, but some symptoms like cough or fatigue can last for several weeks. Norovirus attacks the stomach and intestinal tract causing nausea, vomiting and diarrhea. The virus can mutate so quickly that doctors and scientists have yet to develop effective and reliable means of detecting or treating the virus. People who catch it have to let it run its course over a period of two to three days.
One of the best ways to prevent the spread of the virus, says Leonard Williams, PhD, professor and director of NC A&T State University Center for Excellence in Post Harvest Technologies, is hand washing.
Williams is an expert on foodborne pathogens. He is one of the co-investigators on a multi-institutional, multi-million dollar United States Department of Agriculture grant focused on reducing the harmful health and economic impacts of norovirus. Williams is working on new approaches to control and reduce the effects of norovirus.
Norovirus is often obtained through contaminated food such as produce. Williams urges people to wash their produce thoroughly in warm water. Vegetables like lettuce that have multiple folds need to be scrubbed meticulously. For oranges, melons and other fruits with lots of crevices, Williams suggests using a brush to clean the surfaces. Even if the peels aren’t eaten, pathogens on the surface can easily make their way into the flesh once the fruit is cut and then into those who eat the fruit.
One method of cleaning fruits and vegetables Williams recommends is adding a cap full of bleach to a sink full of warm water. The amount of bleach is not harmful, but do make sure to rinse thoroughly. In fact, Williams says, the amount of bleach is less than what is ingested from drinking tap water. These washing techniques can help fight more than norovirus. They may also wash away Salmonella, E. coli, Listeria and other pathogens that cause foodborne illness.
For those who find themselves with norovirus, be diligent about hand washing and sanitizing surroundings. Also, stay home from work or school to minimize contact with other people and avoid handling or preparing food.