A new strain of the highly contagious norovirus has reached the United States from Australia.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that the virus, named GII.4 Sydney because it's believed to have started in Sydney, Australia, is currently the leading cause of norovirus outbreaks in the United States.
In the CDC's Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, released on Friday, the norovirus is described as the leading cause of epidemic gastroenteritis, including foodborne outbreaks, in the United States. Hospitalization and mortality associated with norovirus infection occur most frequently among elderly persons, young children and immunocompromised patients.
Time reports that the norovirus is often confused with the stomach flu because of its contemporaneous circulation with influenza during winter months. It also causes 21 million cases of illness—often involving severe vomiting and diarrhea—including 70,000 hospitalizations and 800 deaths each year in the United States. Where influenza is a respiratory illness, norovirus, which comes in five forms, favors the stomach and intestinal tract, causing inflammation of tissues that leads to pain, nausea and the diarrhea and vomiting.
Paramedic Jesse Siefert of Medical Rescue Team South Authority (MRTSA), said, "Trending appears to show we are headed towards a 200-percent increase of symptoms similar to the norovirus for the first month of this year compared to last year."
Siefert, acknowledged, though, "MRTSA serves six communities in South Hills of Allegheny County and is only seeing a sample of the overall picture."
MRTSA's serves several communities in the South Hills, although they do not respond to calls in Bridgeville, Collier, Heidelberg or Scott.
"We have a stringent decontamination regimen and infection control plan," Siefert said, "but the news coming in certainly increases our awareness and prevention.
"The norovirus is incredibly stable and capable of living on surfaces or clothing for extended periods of time. Alcohol-based hand sanitizers are not effective in killing the virus. Hand washing should be done thoroughly with soap and water.
"Always consult your doctor; however, never hesitate to call 911. Paramedics at MRTSA are available to provide 24/7 emergency medical services to the community."
Siefert also points out that, according to the CDC, norovirus illness is usually not serious and that most people get better in 1-2 days. However, norovirus illness can be serious in young children, the elderly and people with other health conditions, and it can lead to severe dehydration, hospitalization and even death.
The CDC says that 51 percent of the norovirus cases in the United States were caused by person-to-person transmission and that 20 percent resulted from contaminated food, Time reports. Most infections occur in places where large numbers of people are gathered, such as schools, nursing homes and cruise ships, where the virus can pass easily from host to host.
The CDC reports that the new strain of norovirus was first identified in March 2012 in Australia and has since sickened people on several continents.
So far, no treatments exist for the norovirus, but a group of scientists are currently testing a vaccine developed by LigoCyte Pharmaceuticals, according to Time. The vaccine shot contains a part of the norovirus' outer layer, which the scientists hope will generate a strong immune response in those who get immunized.
Preventing infection with norovirus is similar to protecting against influenza.
The CDC recommends the following:
- Wash your hands carefully with soap and water, especially after using the bathroom or changing diapers, and before handling food.
- Carefully wash produce and seafood before cooking and consuming them. Cook oysters and other shellfish thoroughly before eating them. Be aware that noroviruses are relatively resistant. They can survive temperatures as high as 140 degrees and quick steaming processes that are often used for cooking shellfish.
- When you're sick, wait 2-3 days after you recover before preparing food for anyone. Many local and state health departments require that food handlers and preparers with norovirus illness not work until at least 2-3 days after they recover. If you were recently sick, you can be given different duties in a restaurant, such as working at a cash register or hosting.