This is turning out to be a miserable winter for staying healthy. First it was the flu epidemic, and now comes word that a new, severe strain of norovirus - also called the winter vomiting bug or the cruise-ship virus - has spread from Australia to Europe to Canada to the U.S.
Australian newspapers say the new norovirus, first identified in Sydney last March, has killed nursing home residents from California to Japan, kept cruise ships carrying suspected patients docked for weeks and may have sickened more than 1 million Britons so far. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) say the new virus has caused more than 140 outbreaks in the U.S. in the last four months.
And if you think you'll just use more hand sanitizer to be sure you don't catch it, think again: Alcohol-based sanitizers may work against the flu, but they do not - repeat, do not - protect you against the norovirus, say federal health officials and a 2010 study. What does work is good old-fashioned soap and warm water to wash your hands, and bleach-based cleaner to disinfect surfaces.
Peter White, Ph.D., professor of microbiology and molecular biology at the University of New South Wales, who helped identify and characterize the new mutated strain, explained that the Sydney norovirus is a combination of two strains, which means nobody is immune to it. "The immunity that people carry from previous norovirus infections won't protect them from this new virus," White told the Sydney Morning Herald. "Therefore, the virus can infect many more people."
Between the flu and the norovirus, hospitals in western Canada report they are filled to capacity. The norovirus epidemic has also spread across the English Channel to France, reports the New York Times, with about 474,000 people visiting doctors for severe diarrhea. French officials said the number of cases had surpassed the 283 per 100,000 mark that characterizes an epidemic.
As is typical of a severe stomach virus, the norovirus can cause nausea, vomiting, diarrhea and sometimes fever, headaches and stomach cramps. Symptoms last for only one or two days (although you're so miserable, it may seem like longer), but patients remain contagious for three days after they recover, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
The virus is spread by an infected person's feces or vomit, often from unwashed hands that touch food and surfaces, says the CDC. It spreads most quickly in enclosed spaces, such as cruise ships, day care centers, schools and nursing homes.
Children and the elderly are most at risk, especially from dehydration due to the vomiting and diarrhea. Replacing lost fluids with sports drinks and other beverages can help with mild dehydration, but more serious cases may require medical attention.
Check out these 10 things you should know about the nasty norovirus, from the Huffington Post.
Photo: Dara Skolnick /flickr