Norovirus Outbreak at North Carolina Student Conference

One hundred-fifty of the 1,000 student attendees to a YMCA Youth & Government conference became sick last weekend in Raleigh, North Carolina, The students complained of vomiting, diarrhea, headaches and stomach cramps. According to the Wake County environmental health director, norovirus was confirmed in four of the 150 students who became ill. Noroviruses are a group of viruses that cause the influenza and gastroenteritis in people of all ages.

Investigators are looking for the source of the norovirus, but in the meantime, measures are being taken to stop the spread of the illness through food service establishments. Some of these measures include sanitizing hard surfaces with chlorine disinfectants (e.g., 1/4 cup regular, household bleach in one gallon of water; leave wet for 10 minutes, rinse), restricting bare-handed contact with food and evaluating employee health. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that common ways to contract a norovirus infection include contaminated food and water, contact with an infected person, unwashed hands and dirty utensils.

Noroviruses are very resistant to disinfection. Evidence from outbreak investigations and laboratory-based research has shown that there are a limited number of disinfectants, such as chlorine bleach, that are effective against noroviruses. Bleach destroys these viruses by breaking their genetic material into inactive fragments.

The health investigators and medical professionals in Raleigh have been working diligently to control the norovirus outbreak.

So how can one prevent a norovirus infection? Remember to wash hands with soap and warm water after using the bathroom, changing a diaper, blowing your nose, sneezing or coughing, caring for a sick person, playing with a pet, and also before preparing or eating food. Cook all shellfish thoroughly before eating; wash raw vegetables and fruits before eating. Food handlers should never contact ready-to-eat food with bare hands. Finally, thoroughly clean and disinfect contaminated surfaces immediately after an episode of illness by first soaking up and securely discarding as much of the contaminated material as possible using paper towels; thoroughly washing the surface and then disinfecting it using a chlorine bleach solution.

(Chris Wiant, M.P.H., Ph.D., is president and CEO of the Caring for Colorado Foundation. He is also chair of the Water Quality & Health Council.)