Compared with some diseases that can date back to ancient times, norovirus actually is quite new. The first outbreak of norovirus was recorded in Norwalk, OH, in 1968. Little was known about the virus until the 1990s, and in 2001, the Centers for Disease and Prevention published information for public health officials on the diagnosis, epidemiology, infection control and possible prevention measures to take when a norovirus outbreak occurs.
Although it is only about half a century old, norovirus is the leading cause of foodborne illness in the United States. Some 19 million to 21 million people in this country fall ill with norovirus each year, with as many as 70,000 people requiring hospitalization and 570 to 800 dying annually. Much remains to be discovered about this virus. We do know some important facts about how it spreads, however — and fortunately, how to stop it:
- Norovirus is seasonal. Most outbreaks occur between November and April.
- It has a rapid onset, usually about 12 hours. This short time span often helps investigators find the source of the outbreak quickly.
- Although it is viewed as highly contagious, some people are immune to norovirus, and others may get the disease but show no symptoms, although they still may spread the disease to others.
- The illness usually resolves in 24 to 72 hours after onset.
- Although we hear about problems such as vomiting, cramps, nausea and diarrhea as the complications from norovirus, dehydration from acute diarrhea is the most serious aspect of the disease.
- As few as 18 viral particles can cause a widespread outbreak, especially if these particles are transmitted occurs in a confined space such as on a cruise ship or in a senior living or long-term care facility.
This last point is crucial for long-term care administrators and executive directors to know. As many as half the cases of norovirus occur in seniors housing and care facilities. And because these locations house older people, and in many cases people with compromised immune systems, coming down with norovirus can have very serious ramifications.
The vomiting disease
One of the most common complications of norovirus is what has been termed “explosive” vomiting. Not only is this very uncomfortable for the afflicted, but it also is one of the main ways norovirus is spread.
According to the Texas Department of State Health Services, when a person with norovirus vomits, “it can propel small airborne virus particles within a 25-foot radius. [These particles] have been known to survive 16 to 60 days on hard surfaces such as toilets, faucets, door handles, handrails, carpets, upholstery, telephones, computers, touch screens and kitchen preparation surfaces.”
It’s because the vomiting is so explosive and the virus can live up to two months on a surface that norovirus is such a contagious disease. This is also why when a resident vomits, executive directors and administrators must assume that the cause is norovirus.
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