Norovirus reports stress hand washing

Yelena Kibasova

Students who don’t wash their hands after using the bathroom might be eating more than they bargained for during their next meal.

Reported cases of noroviruses this year have increased in Minnesota. The Minnesota Department of Health has received 35 reports of the viral infection since the beginning of the year.

Noroviruses are spread primarily person to person or through the contamination of food prepared by an ill person.

“The first 24 to 48 hours after you get symptoms is when you are shedding the most virus,” said Jason Baker, medical fellow in the division of infectious diseases.

There are about 76 million food-borne illnesses each year nationwide, Smith said. Noroviruses are the leading cause of food-borne illness.

A norovirus infection is sometimes referred to as the “stomach flu,” although influenza is more of a respiratory illness with symptoms similar to a cold.

“This is a totally different family of viruses and should be thought of differently,” Baker said. “Unfortunately, the term ‘stomach flu’ is kind of stuck.”

Symptoms of a norovirus infection include vomiting, diarrhea, stomach cramps, general aches and an overall feeling of fatigue, said Kirk Smith, head of the food-borne disease unit at the Minnesota Department of Health and adjunct professor in the school of public health.

Norovirus cases typically peak in the winter, but this season the Minnesota Department of Health has received more reports than in previous years. Smith said the department typically receives 10 to 12 reports during winter, but this year it already has about 35 reports.

There are many more cases that go unreported each year.

Outbreaks usually are at locations that use commercial foods, such as schools, nursing homes, restaurants and hotels, Smith said.

“We typically don’t hear about it if there is no commercially bought food,” he said.

Smith said bigger problems arise when a food handler becomes infected.

“(Handlers) can contaminate a whole bunch of food at once,” he said.

Smith said the key to preventing norovirus illnesses is adequate hygiene.

People should wash their hands with soap and water for 15 to 20 seconds.

“As a whole we are very bad at washing hands,” Smith said. “If (people) don’t wash their hands before they eat, they basically ingest the virus.”

The virus is found in vomit and stool, he said.

“You basically have eaten poop from either another person or animal somewhere,” Smith said.

Christina Brennan, a political science junior, said she thinks most students are at least trying to wash their hands.

“It needs to be done better, but at least everyone is doing it minimally,” she said.

People can continue to spread the norovirus for one to two weeks after their symptoms have passed, Smith said.

“The best thing that you can do to protect yourself is to wash your hands before you eat,” he said. “If you do get sick, stay home until you recover.”