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Norovirus Outbreak Hits the Winter Olympics

The 2018 Winter Olympics hasn’t even started yet and already, dozens of private security guards at the Pyeongchang Olympic Village in South Korea have been hospitalized with norovirus. This has led organizers to call in South Korean soldiers to replace the guards. So far, 41 security personnel have reported symptoms of norovirus, including vomiting and diarrhea, just in the last few days, leading organizers to withdraw 1,200 of the guards overall and replace them with 900 soldiers. They will also distribute hand sanitizer to everyone, as a way to prevent a further outbreak.

The Pyeongchang Olympic Games are scheduled to begin this coming Friday. According to organizers, besides the distribution of hand sanitizer, they have put in place “very stringent measures” when it comes to the safe handling of food and beverages. In addition, as soon as a case is reported they plan to make sure the entire area is disinfected immediately. South Korean disease control authorities continue to discuss potential countermeasures to control the spread of the disease.

This incident follows one last year at the World Athletics Championships in London, in which a number of athletes were forced to pull out of the competition following a norovirus outbreak at one of the local hotels.

The Spread of Norovirus

Norovirus infection is commonly spread via contaminated food and water. The contamination usually occurs during preparation or when the food comes in contact with a contaminated surface. In the United State, norovirus infect is most common in closed and crowded environments, including places such as hospitals, nursing homes, hotels, resorts, child care centers, schools and cruise ships. It can also occur when someone comes in contact with someone already infected with norovirus.

When someone is exposed to norovirus, they can see symptoms like severe abdominal pain, vomiting and diarrhea within 12 to 48 hours. Symptoms of norovirus can also include malaise, low-grade fever and muscle pain. These symptoms usually last for one to three days, although it can take up two weeks for the norovirus to completely get out of the system through the feces. Whereas most people recover completely without treatment, many others can get much sicker. Norovirus infection can be far more severe, and lead to dehydration, and other medical problems that require medical attention and hospitalization. The symptoms and potential medical effects can be far worse for small children, the elderly or those with weak or compromised immune symptoms.

It is recommended that anyone who suffers diarrhea for more than a couple days, or if they suffer severe abdominal pain, vomiting or symptoms of dehydration. Keep in mind, even some people who show no signs or symptoms of norovirus infection can still be carrying the virus and give it to others.

A Major Cause of “Food Poisoning”

Norovirus, which is often referred to as “food poisoning” or “stomach flu,” is not just a single virus. Noroviruses are a group of related viruses whose infection causes an illness called gastroenteritis, which is an inflammation of the stomach and intestines. Norovirus is the leading cause of foodborne illness and outbreaks in the United States. In fact, it is estimated that right around 50% of all foodborne illness outbreaks every year are caused by norovirus. As noted, many foods can become contaminated with norovirus at any point during the production process, including while it is being grown, or harvested, or when being shipped, handled, or prepared. That is why the foods most commonly associated with norovirus outbreaks include:

  • Leafy greens, such as spinach and lettuce;
  • Fresh fruit;
  • Shellfish

How to Avoid Norovirus

Those are just the most common sources; nearly any food that is raw or that has been handled after cooking can become contaminated with norovirus. There is no vaccine for norovirus and there is no medication available to treat it. However, contamination is quite preventable, by following some very basic tips:

  • Wash your hands thoroughly and often. – Washing your hands carefully and completely with soap and warm water is the best way to prevent contamination, especially after using the toilet of changing a diaper, and certainly just before you prepare food. If soap and water are unavailable, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer, but recognize that soap and water are still better.
  • Wash food thoroughly. – Carefully wash all fruits and vegetables, especially leafy greens and cook shellfish thoroughly before eating them, including oysters.
  • Never prepare food if you have been infected by any foodborne illness. – Those infected with norovirus should not prepare food for anyone while they have symptoms and for at least three days after the fully recover from the illness.
  • Clean and disinfect contaminated cooking and food preparation surfaces. – Use a bleach-based household cleaner to thoroughly clean and disinfect any surface after you or anyone in the home have thrown up or had diarrhea. Always use the cleaning product as directed. As a substitute, you can use a solution of 3 tablespoons of household bleach for every gallon of water to clean and disinfect. Wear gloves as you do all of this.
  • Launder clothing and other materials as soon as possible. – Immediately after being infected, wash any clothing, linens or other potentially contaminated materials in a washer. Handle soiled clothing carefully to avoid spreading the virus. The items should be washed with a strong detergent at the longest available cycle and the hottest water possible, then dried in a machine, not outside on a line.
  • Stay home from work. – You will be contagious until at least 2-3 days after the symptoms end. This is especially the case if your job involves handling food. Children who suffer a norovirus infection should be kept home from school or child care for at least as long. In fact, everyone should stay home and avoid travel until all symptoms have ceased and the infection has cleared.
Food Poisoning