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Good hand washing - a key to stopping spread of Norovirus

Armen Hareyan's picture

Hygiene and hand washing

Public health officials in Clackamas, Multnomah and Washington Counties have recently noted heightened community concern and awareness of viral gastroenteritis. Viral gastroenteritis is an infection of the stomach and small intestines, commonly caused by a group of viruses called Noroviruses. These illnesses were once called "the stomach flu", or "winter vomiting disease".

"Norovirus is a common virus and does not pose a serious threat to most people," states Gary Oxman, M.D., health officer for Clackamas, Multnomah, and Washington counties. "It is of most concern to the elderly and people with serious existing health conditions,"

People can avoid getting Norovirus infection by taking these steps:

  • Wash your hands often, especially after using the toilet or changing diapers, and before eating or preparing food.

  • Carefully wash fruits and vegetables, and cook oysters before eating them.

  • Using gloves, thoroughly clean and disinfect surfaces immediately after contamination with feces or vomit by using a bleach-based household cleaner.

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  • Immediately remove and wash clothing or linens contaminated with feces or vomit (use hot water and soap).

  • Flush any vomit or feces down the toilet and make sure that the surrounding area is clean.

Norovirus is always in the community, but becomes more of a concern when cases occur in institutional facilities, such as long-term care facilities and retirement communities, because elderly people are at higher risk of complications, especially dehydration. According to local health officials, more facilities are reporting multiple cases of the disease, but it is not clear whether the number of total cases is higher than in past years.

The symptoms of Norovirus infection usually include nausea, vomiting, diarrhea and stomach cramping. Most people get better within one or two days, and have no long term health effects. However, sometimes people become dehydrated because they are unable to drink enough liquids to replace the liquids they lose due to of vomiting and diarrhea.

Noroviruses can spread easily from person to person through contact with stool or vomit. People develop symptoms within two days after they contact the virus. Once ill, people are contagious and stay contagious for at least three days after they recover. Some people may be contagious for up to two weeks after they recover.

"It is always important for people to use good hygiene, including hand washing - even when they are not ill," adds Oxman. "People who have the infection should not prepare food for others while they are ill and for three days after they recover. People should be careful handling diapers, and always wash their hands thoroughly afterwards. Day-care center or nursing home workers should pay careful attention to hygiene, especially when attendees have had diarrhea."

No medicine can cure Norovirus and there is no vaccine to prevent infection. Antibiotics do not work because they work to fight bacteria, not viruses. By drinking fluids such as juice or water, people can reduce their chance of becoming dehydrated.