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What Is Behind Outbreaks of Norovirus?

It can be called stomach flu, food poisoning or acute gastroenteritis. Medical experts call it the Norovirus, and this family of viruses causes diarrhea, nausea, vomiting and other flu-like symptoms. As VOA's Melinda Smith explains, it can strike victims anywhere from a fancy cruise ship to a squalid refugee camp.

The Norovirus does not discriminate. It can afflict those who are destitute and those who are rich. Hundreds of passengers on the Queen Elizabeth Two luxury liner recently learned that lesson the hard way. Arthur Woodstone was one of the tourists who experienced the agony of nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, cramping and fever: "I was one of the martyrs. Twenty four hours in my cabin in luxury."

It can occur in any location where people are grouped together, eating the same food, touching the same things and coming in contact with someone already infected.

Norovirus is one of the most common causes of infection and diarrhea. It has been with humans for ages. So why is there so much attention now?

Marc-Alain Widdowson of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has one theory. "What we think may be happening is that there is a new strain of Norovirus to which people have not been exposed before."

Vanderbilt University's chief of preventive medicine, Dr. William Schaffner, thinks a rapid diagnosis of more than one type of the Norovirus can only be done in a sophisticated laboratory. "There is a particular Norovirus strain that is more apt to make you sick. It's more virulent, we call it, and that virus is circulating rather abundantly and so that also probably contributes to why we're seeing more Norovirus disease than we have in the past."

Norovirus has afflicted people in at least 17 U.S. states in recent months. Patients in hospitals and nursing homes are especially vulnerable because of their weakened immune systems.

Dr. Schaffner says all it takes is one health care worker or visitor from the outside to introduce the virus. "Be alert to anyone in the facility who develops a diarrheal illness, and then to confine them, to try to isolate them and care for them in a very hygienic way so they don't have the opportunity to spread it to others."

When masses of people were evacuated from New Orleans, Louisiana in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, health officials braced for a possible spread of the Norovirus. Alcohol-based hand sanitizers were given to refugees to prevent the virus from spreading. Health officials caution mothers to be especially careful when changing diapers of young children.

There is no available vaccine to stop the Norovirus. Dr. Schaffner says the best prevention is simple handwashing with warm water and soap. "Now I'm mindful of the fact that around the world people have varying access to clean water and indeed to such simple implements as soap. But when that's available, that's a very, very effective way of interrupting transmission because our hands are what bring the virus to our mouths very, very often."

So what does he suggest, if there is no WARM water? "It's the rubbing and spending some time, so the more you do that, the less likely you are to acquire Norovirus, influenza and lots of other infectious diseases."

It can take up to a week to recover from a Norovirus. Health experts recommend the patient start out with small amounts of fluids mixed with a little bit of sugar and salt to restore the equilibrium. Gradually increase those fluids until the patient feels better. Then spread the message of good hygiene to others.