Norovirus spreads across nation

Typically called “stomach flu,” it has no relation to the flu.

by Branden Largent

For students with stomach pains, vomiting and diarrhea, University of Minnesota experts want to remind them the flu isn’t the culprit.

A new strain of the norovirus  — typically misnamed the “stomach flu” — has been spreading throughout the country, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention .

Symptoms for norovirus include diarrhea, vomiting and nausea, and sometimes fever, headache and body aches that last up to three days.

Boynton Health Service  has seen several patients with norovirus symptoms but not a widespread outbreak, according to Gary Christenson, Boynton’s chief medical officer.

Some of the patients with norovirus-like symptoms were treated for dehydration, Christenson said, but Boynton won’t test for the disease unless cases become more frequent.

Flu confusion

Many people call norovirus the “stomach flu” or “flu,” although Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy research associate Nick Kelley  said the disease is not related to influenza.

“There are over 200 different infectious diseases that cause symptoms similar to the flu,” Kelley said. “So people just associate anything with influenza-like illness with influenza.”

Influenza is primarily a respiratory virus with symptoms including fever, achiness, chills and respiratory symptoms, while norovirus has mainly gastrointestinal symptoms, said Craig Hedberg, an environmental health sciences  professor.

New strains of norovirus usually emerge every two or three years and cause outbreaks during the fall and winter months, Hedberg said.

This season’s strain started in Sydney and has spread throughout the world. Unlike the flu, Hedberg said, no vaccine can prevent norovirus.

Christenson said people with norovirus symptoms should drink plenty of fluids because dehydration is a risk with the virus.

Food service response

Norovirus is a food-borne illness, Kelley said, and can spread quickly through nursing homes, cruise ships, restaurants and residence halls.

Paul Allwood, University director of Occupational Health and Safety,  said statewide food industry regulations mandate that people with norovirus symptoms cannot come to work until they are symptom-free for 72 hours.

Food service workers are also restricted from handling kitchenware and ready-to-eat foods for an additional 72 hours.

“The big thing is to keep [sick] employees from showing up at work,” said Mark Rossi, a University environmental hygiene officer.

University Dining Services employees are union workers, which makes it easier for employees to stay home when they’re sick because managers find temporary replacements for employees, Rossi said.

“It’s pretty easy not to come in sick here,” he said.

UDS serves more than 5 million meals a year and has never had a widespread outbreak, Rossi said.

The second barrier of prevention for UDS is constantly washing hands, using gloves and cooking foods at high temperatures.

“Something’s got to go pretty wrong for [norovirus] to be an issue, he said.

But Rossi said fresh, ready-to-eat foods are the main culprits of widespread outbreaks.

According to the CDC, produce accounted for 46 percent of food-borne illnesses. 

Rossi said once in response to a summer 2008 norovirus episode, UDS changed its procedure in Centennial Hall to prevent patrons from handling scoops and tongs.

“If you get Mr. Poopy Hands in line, he can transfer that up to 20 times to the next person,”  Rossi said.


Norovirus prevention mostly relies on good hygiene, like frequent hand washing, Kelley said.

Alcohol-based hand sanitizers don’t kill the norovirus, so Kelley said they shouldn’t be a replacement for soap and water.

Christenson said people with symptoms should
thoroughly wash their hands and bathroom surfaces for two minutes.

Chlorine bleach should be used for cleaning surfaces in a 20-foot radius surrounding vomit because the virus is contagious, Rossi said.

The distinctions between the two diseases are crucial, Allwood said.

“They are caused by completely different organisms and have different courses, different treatment and different prevention,” Allwood said.