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FYI from the Health Department on the Prevention of Norovirus

Madison, WI, Wednesday, December 27, 2006
There has been a lot of media attention given to the recent outbreaks of gastro-intestinal illness at holiday parties at the Edgewater Hotel, the Monona Terrace Convention Center and at a local nursing home. In the wake of this attention, it's important for the public to be aware of the basic facts about the illness and its prevention, because this illness can happen to anyone, not just those associated with outbreaks.

The symptoms associated with this illness involve an unpleasant combination of nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, cramps, headache, chills, low-grade fever and muscle aches. The usual suspect in such outbreaks is the norovirus - a highly infectious microorganism that can make someone sick in as little as 12 hours after exposure, though it usually takes between 24 and 48 hours to show up.

According to Amanda Kita-Yarbro, a Communicable Disease Epidemiologist with Public Health, "It's becoming clear that the virus may be fairly widespread throughout the area." There have in fact been outbreaks reported within Wisconsin as well as nationally and internationally. Historically, the number of outbreaks of norovirus-related illness reported in Wisconsin peaks in the fall and winter.

The norovirus (formerly known as the Norwalk Virus) is often the cause of similar outbreaks that have been reported on cruise ships. Kita-Yarbro added, that "people often refer to this kind of illness as the stomach flu. In fact there is really no such thing as the stomach flu, since influenza is a respiratory disease. This distinction is important, because the flu vaccine has nothing to do with any gastro-intestinal illness. So if you've been vaccinated and come down with these symptoms, it's not because your flu vaccine failed."

The challenging news about this virus is that there is no cure except time. The disease is self-limiting, which means that it essentially cures itself after it runs its course. The best treatment is simply a matter of bed rest and plenty of fluids. Fluid intake is particularly important, since vomiting and diarrhea can quickly lead to dehydration. It's also important to remember that antibiotics are not recommended for this illness since antibiotics have no effect on viruses.

There is good news regarding prevention. There are three simple steps you can take to help prevent the spread of this illness:

1. be sure to wash your hands after using the toilet and before handling food
(alcohol gel hand cleaners are useful supplements to hand washing if soap
and water are not available)

2. it is really vital that you stay home from work if you are ill, especially if your
work involves health care, personal care, food handling and child care.
People infected with norovirus are contagious from the moment they begin
feeling ill. People may return to work as soon as they feel well, but should
take extra care with personal hygiene, like handwashing for up to three
weeks. Good handwashing and other hygienic practices are important after
recovery from any gastrointestinal illness.

3. if someone in your household is ill, be sure to disinfect bathroom and other
surfaces between uses with a mild bleach solution.
• for items that may come into contact with the mouth, like toys, use 5 tablespoons of bleach per 1 gallon of water
• for tile floors, counter-tops, sinks, toilets and door handles, use 1/3rd cup of bleach per 1 gallon of water
• the bleach solution should be in contact with the surface for 10-20 minutes, then rinsed off with clear water.

Kita-Yarbro reminds us that this is a fairly common illness, so while people need not be alarmed, they should definitely be aware of the situation, and pay special attention to the simple steps that help prevent the occurrence and spread of this unpleasant illness.

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  • Jeff Golden, 267-2583