Just as a nationwide flu epidemic appears to have leveled off in Ohio, a new strain of stomach virus has surfaced in state with the potential to spread quickly, according to state health officials.
The state already is experiencing “moderately heavy” levels of the norovirus, which can cause severe diarrhea, vomiting, nausea and stomach cramping, said Tessie Pollock, a spokesman for the Ohio Department of Health.
But the new strain, dubbed GII.4 Sydney after the Australian city where it was first identified earlier this year, has the potential to boost the number of norovirus outbreaks at an alarming rate.
The new strain is now responsible for about 60 percent of norovirus outbreaks nationwide, about three times the number of outbreaks caused by the new strain in September, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported Thursday.
The new strain has been detected in at least four cases in Ohio but is still a small fraction of the 31 norovirus outbreaks reported in the state through mid-December, according to state health department figures.
“It is not known or clear how GII.4 Sydney will impact Ohioans,” Pollock said. “However, at this time, it is not causing more than the usual amount of outbreaks we see this time of year.”
CDC estimates that each year more than 20 million cases of acute gastroenteritis are caused by noroviruses. That means about 1 in every 15 Americans will get norovirus illness each year. Norovirus is also estimated to cause over 70,000 hospitalizations and 800 deaths each year in the United States.
Norovirus outbreaks typically piggyback on the flu season, which hit early and especially hard this year in Ohio, where there have been 3,081 flu-related hospitalizations and a handful of flu-related deaths since October, according to the latest state flu-activity report.
By comparison, there were no flu-related deaths and less than 100 hospitalizations reported over the same period in each of the previous two years.
Still, there are signs the flu viruses have begun to retreat.
There were were only two more hospitalizations last week (586) than in the previous week, and the most recent weekly figure was down 19 percent from the first week of the year, according to the flu report.
“It could be a temporary plateau, or we very well may have seen the peak of the flu season,” Pollock said. “But we won’t know for awhile.”
Norovirus can spread quickly from person to person in crowded, closed places like long-term care facilities, daycare centers, schools, hotels and cruise ships, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Noroviruses can also be a major cause of gastroenteritis in restaurants and catered-meal settings if contaminated food is served.
The viruses are found in the vomit and stool of infected people. You can get it by:
- Eating food or drinking liquids that are contaminated with norovirus (someone gets stool or vomit on their hands, then touches food or drink).
- Touching surfaces or objects contaminated with norovirus and then putting your hand or fingers in your mouth.
- Having direct contact with a person who is infected with norovirus (for example, when caring for someone with norovirus or sharing foods or eating utensils with them).
People with norovirus illness are contagious from the moment they begin feeling sick until at least three days after they recover. But, some people may be contagious for even longer.
There is no vaccine to prevent norovirus infection. Also, there is no drug to treat people who get sick from the virus. Antibiotics will not help if you have norovirus illness. This is because antibiotics fight against bacteria, not viruses. The best way to reduce your chance of getting norovirus is by following some simple tips.
- Practice proper hand hygiene: Wash your hands carefully with soap and water, especially after using the toilet and changing diapers and always before eating or preparing food. If soap and water aren’t available, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer. These alcohol-based products can quickly reduce the number of germs on hands in some situations, but they are not a substitute for washing with soap and water.
- Take care in the kitchen: Carefully wash fruits and vegetables, and cook oysters and other shellfish thoroughly before eating them.
- Do not prepare food while infected: People with norovirus illness should not prepare food for others while they have symptoms and for 3 days after they recover from their illness. (see For Food Handlers: Norovirus and Working with Food)
- Clean and disinfect contaminated surfaces: After throwing up or having diarrhea, immediately clean and disinfect contaminated surfaces by using a bleach-based household cleaner as directed on the product label. If no such cleaning product is available, you can use a solution made with 5 tablespoons to 1.5 cups of household bleach per 1 gallon of water.
- Wash laundry thoroughly: Immediately remove and wash clothing or linens that may be contaminated with vomit or stool. Handle soiled items carefully—without agitating them—to avoid spreading virus. If available, wear rubber or disposable gloves while handling soiled clothing or linens and wash your hands after handling. The items should be washed with detergent at the maximum available cycle length and then machine dried.