Norovirus: Today’s Most Pervasive Source of Food Poisoning
Noroviruses are the most common cause of gastroenteritis (otherwise known as inflammation of the stomach and intestines) in the United States. They affect the stomach and intestines and cause an inflammation of the stomach lining and intestinal walls. Based upon the 2011 incident estimations outlined in a recent CDC report, norovirus accounts for between 3,200,000 and 8,300,000 illnesses each year, with between 8000 and 23,000 hospitalizations, and between 85 and 250 deaths. But other reports put the number much higher, with estimates that each year more than 20 million cases of acute gastroenteritis are caused by noroviruses. That would translate into about 1 in every 15 Americans in a given year, with norovirus hospitalizing 70,000 and killing 800 Americans each year.
The difficulty in precise estimations is that most Americans will not seek medical attention for norovirus related illness, in part because of the quick onset and relatively quick resolution (in many cases the onset can occur in a matter of hours and resolve in 24 to 48 hours—though there are many instances of a longer incubation period followed by as many as 10-14 days of symptoms). There is no cure and no vaccine for norovirus.
Norovirus is also highly contagious, and can be spread rapidly from person to person in crowded, closed places like long-term care facilities, daycare centers, schools, hotels, and cruise ships. But it is also spread rapidly in restaurants and catered-meal settings if contaminated food is served—in fact, norovirus is a leading cause of disease from contaminated foods in the United States.
According to CDC estimates, approximately 25% of all norovirus cases are derived from eating contaminated food.
A Recent Example in Casper, Wyoming
A single source of norovirus can sicken hundreds in a matter of days, as was seen very recently in Casper, Wyoming, in which the newly opened Golden Corral restaurant saw the norovirus spread rapidly as sick employees and/or tainted food disseminated the virus rapidly for a few days.
The virus, which a recent report seems to imply was introduced by one or more sick employees who worked while ill, sickened at least 240, but in all likelihood many, many more (there are about 350 in the “suspected” pool of victims). At Golden Corral, the “cold-service” areas have been most implicated as the “infected areas” of the restaurant.
Norovirus tends to transfer with colder foods, such as leafy greens (lettuce, spinach as well as sprouts and other garden greens), fresh fruits, cold or room-temperature desserts, and shellfish (such as oysters). However, since any food item that is served raw or handled after being cooked can become contaminated with norovirus, at present it is unclear what the culinary medium was that sickening so many. Some reports indicate that perhaps it was dirty (rinsed but not effectively washed) dishes that had been recycled in the buffet line, and not (at least initially) the food itself that had become contaminated.
Norovirus Symptoms Synonymous with Food Poisoning
The symptoms of norovirus infection usually include the typical symptoms of food poisoning, including diarrhea, vomiting, nausea, and stomach cramping. In the Golden Corral outbreak, approximately 95% of the case-confirmed victims suffered these symptoms. But there are also other, less common symptoms, such as low-grade fever, chills, tiredness, headache, and muscle weakness. Persons have also been known to suffer from dehydration due to the failure to replenish the fluids lost from diarrhea and vomiting. Those who have been ill from food poisoning should be especially mindful of the symptoms of dehydration, which include a decrease in urination, a dry mouth and throat, and dizziness. In children who are dehydrated, other signs may include crying with few or no tears, excessive sleepiness, or irritability. Preventing dehydration requires drinking plenty of liquids.
Norovirus Highly Contagious for Days
The victims of norovirus can easily become the disseminators of norovirus. A person becomes contagious at the first sign of symptoms and remains contagious until at least 3 days after the symptoms subside. However, some people may be contagious for even longer, making the spread of the illness especially hard to contain. At the Golden Corral, approximately 20 employees worked during or immediately after they were ill, meaning that any one of them could have easily disseminated the virus to the patrons of the restaurant. Sick persons are highly encouraged to take time off from work and school and remain at home until at least three days after the symptoms resolve.
In addition to those infected staying home when ill, everyone should learn to practice basic safe and sanitary habits. The most helpful habit, according to the CDC, is effective hand-washing, where a person carefully washes their hands with soap and water, especially after using the toilet and changing diapers and always before eating or preparing food. If soap and water are not available, the CDC recommends people use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer. These alcohol-based products can quickly reduce the number of germs on hands in many situations, though the CDC reiterates that they should not be used as a substitute for washing with soap and water.
Antibiotics will not help if you have norovirus illness. This is because antibiotics fight against bacteria, not viruses.