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Highly Contagious Virus Sickens Millions at High Cost


People enter the Russell Investments Center building Monday, Dec. 7, 2015, in Seattle. Over 100 people have gotten sick in a norovirus outbreak at the office building, health officials reported Monday.

Everyone knows about the flu, and the common cold, but not as many people are familiar with norovirus, despite the fact that it runs rampant around the world, sickening nearly 700 million people each year and costing billions in lost productivity.

Norovirus causes severe diarrhea, nausea and vomiting. It is responsible for about 50 percent of all gastrointestinal illnesses around that world, not only in developed countries but emerging nations as well. And it kills approximately 219,000 people a year.

Bruce Lee is a professor of international health at the Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health. He and his colleagues estimated the cost of norovirus in 233 countries, regions and territories around the world. The figure they came up with: upwards of $60 billion dollars a year in lost productivity, due to personal illness or caring for a sick child.

“We were interested in quantifying or better characterizing the impact of norovirus because it’s something that you’ve heard of, but if you think about it, you're not really sure what the impact, how often does it occur, how widespread is it.”

The actual number of people who get sick with norovirus, said Lee, may be an underestimate because a substantial number of cases go unreported.

“So people may suffer with the symptoms and they think, 'well I’ve got a stomach bug', quote end quote, and 'I’ve got some food poisoning' and they never really report it or get diagnosed,” he said.

Researchers report their estimates in the journal PLoS One. Their calculations are thought to be the first regarding the global impact of norovirus.

Highly contagious, but preventable

Lee said the disease is a very aggressive intestinal illness, causing the worst diarrhea most people have ever had.

While there is no vaccine for norovirus, Lee hopes greater awareness will lead to control measures. These include washing hands and disinfecting food preparation areas. He said people who fall ill should also be encouraged to stay home.

“Many times, people who work in restaurants or the food preparation industry feel obligated to show up to work even though they are sick, because many folks are on wages and they can’t afford to miss a day, even a day.. so they’ll come in sick and then they’ll end up contaminating food and spread it to many other people,” Lee said.

Lee said there are experimental vaccines under development - although they are not funded to the same degree as drug research for other illnesses – but he hopes one will emerge that will help contain the spread of norovirus.

Editor's note: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated the number of people sickened annually by norovirus. Nearly 700 million are infected each year.