Berkeley Investigates Norovirus Outbreak on Campus

The University of California at Berkeley may be next in the long line of Universities that have experienced an outbreak of norovirus during the first two months of 2016. Other universities and colleges that have experienced a norovirus outbreak since January 1st include Miami University of Ohio (200), University of Michigan (150-200), Michigan State University (375), Ursinus College (200).

Three cases have been confirmed by microbiological testing, and many others have been reported ill but were not tested or are awaiting test results. The potential outbreak comes on the heels of a December warning by state officials that California was experiencing a substantial increase in norovirus cases.

University officials, who are taking the situation “very seriously,” are working with fraternities and sororities to contain the spread of the disease by disinfecting areas in an attempt to prevent the highly contagious virus from sweeping across campus.

In public areas across campus, the Environmental Health Sanitation Department is working with university health officials to perform deep cleaning operations.

Numerous boarding schools and school districts have reported severe outbreaks of the virus as well.

Norovirus: a Constantly Evolving Threat

Norovirus, the most common cause of acute gastroenteritis in the United States, is highly contagious and constitutes the most common cause of foodborne-disease outbreaks in the country. The virus causes between 19 and 21 million illnesses, including 56,000-71,000 hospitalizations and 570-800 deaths, in the US on an annual basis.

Certain components of the disease change and evolve at an extremely high rate, which results in new strains of the virus. Those emergent new strains subsequently produce successive waves of pandemic disease; in other words, the new strain of the disease has quickly spread through human populations across a large region (multiple continents or worldwide).  In late 2012, a new pandemic strain named GII.4 2012 Sydney replaced almost all previously circulating strains.

When the prevalent strain is replaced by a new one, increased norovirus activity may be reported. For example, with the evolution of the GII.4 2012 Sydney strain, one newspaper reported that “the new strain is to blame for the record number of cases of the virus seen this winter, which it terms a ‘severe norovirus season’.”

No evidence has been made public that would suggest that the widespread nature of norovirus outbreaks this winter is due to a new strain of the virus, but given that a new strain has tended to emerge every 2-3 years in recent history and the GII.4 2012 Sydney strain has been the prevailing strain since 2013, it’s a factor that should be considered.

 

Signs, Symptoms and How to Prevent Norovirus

Norovirus results in severe inflammation of the stomach and/or intestines – a condition called acute gastroenteritis – that generally leads to stomach pain, diarrhea, nausea and vomiting. Consistent vomiting and diarrhea may lead to dehydration, which can result in decreased urination, dry mouth and dry throat, and feeling dizzy when standing. Older adults, young children, and individuals with other illnesses are particularly susceptible to dehydration.  More rare symptoms may include fever, headache and body aches. The symptoms of the virus usually appear 12 to 48 hours after the person is first exposed to the virus, and begin to subside 24 to 72 hours after they begin.

No vaccine exists to prevent norovirus, though there is active research in an attempt to do so.

The most important and effective method of preventing the spread of norovirus is handwashing. Since the virus can be in your body even before you start feeling sick, and remains there for up to two weeks after you feel better, consistently washing your hands during this time is critical to prevent further spread of the disease. “Hand sanitizers” – alcohol-based disinfectants – can be used to supplement handwashing but should not be used in lieu of washing your hands, as it is not as effective against the virus.

To further prevent the disease, wash fruits and vegetables and cook seafood, including oysters and other shellfish, thoroughly. Noroviruses are particularly resistant, and are able to survive quick steaming processes that of often used for cooking shellfish and can thrive in temperatures up to 140 degrees Fahrenheit.