Norovirus is Back! Food Poisoning Outbreak in Australia Update

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The norovirus, also known as the "cruise ship virus" and many other names is making a comeback in Austrila. Image by GrahamColm

The norovirus, also known as the “cruise ship virus” and many other names is making a comeback in Australia. Image by GrahamColm

Australia’s southeast Queensland has been hit with the highly contagious norovirus. The norovirus, also known as the “stomach bug,” “stomach flu,” or “food poisoning” can make you very ill.

As of Wednesday, September 4, 2013, there were 130 confirmed cases of the norovirus. The norovirus is a major cause of gastrointestinal illness and causes your stomach and/or your intestines to become inflamed.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), signs and symptoms of norovirus include abdominal pain, diarrhea, vomiting, nausea, and sometimes fever, headache, and body aches. Most people recover without medical treatment in one to three days; however, you can become dehydrated and may need IV fluids.

Norovirus Outbreaks

Australia’s largest outbreak is the Ipwich nursing home, where 55 patients and 14 staff members have become ill. At the Ipwich hospital, more than 20 patients have become sick and at the Boonah Health Service,  one patient and 13 staff members became ill.

Australia isn’t the only country with a gastroenteritis outbreak due to the norovirus. In a senior home in British Columbia, nine people died and 100 people and 5o staff members got sick in July after contracting the norovirus. Most norovirus outbreaks are found in hospitals, long term care facilities, nursing homes; however, outbreaks can occur in cruise ships, summer camps, school, and family dinners.

Mixing contaminated water with pesticides has been found to spread the norovirus. Photo by the Environmental Protection Agency.

Mixing contaminated water with pesticides spreads the norovirus. Photo by the Environmental Protection Agency.

Where Does Norovirus Come From?

The norovirus is one of the most common causes of food-borne illness – in fact, the CDC reports that about 50 percent of all outbreaks of food-borne illnesses are due to the norovirus, the other major cause is bacteria in our food.

Foods that are commonly found in outbreaks involving norovirus are leafy green, fresh fruit, and shellfish; however, any food that is not prepared correctly can be a source of contamination.

In a recent study published in May 2013 in the Environmental Health Perspective Journal suggests that contaminated water that is used to dilute agricultural pesticides maybe one way the virus is getting on our food.

Farmers use water from streams, lakes, wells, irrigation ditches, and rivers to mix with pesticides; these sources of water can harbor the norovirus.

Until recently, no one knew whether or not the norovirus would still be infectious after mixing it with pesticides.

Researchers from the National Institute for Public Health and the Environment in Bilthoven and the Institute for Risk Assessment Sciences at Utrecht University, the Netherlands, found, however, that most pesticides do not kill the norovirus. This means that when the farmers mix the water with the pesticides and then spray it on our foods, it can make us sick when we eat those foods.

Avoid the Norovirus

So what can you do to prevent infection with this highly infectious virus? Keep eating your fruits and vegetables, but wash them thoroughly before eating. Always practice good hand-hygiene by washing your hands after using the restroom, after changing diapers, and always wash before handling food. Research has also shown that getting kids a shot of the rotavirus vaccine can help as well.

Purchasing organic foods that have not been sprayed with pesticides may also reduce your risk of getting the norovirus. Organic foods, according to the United States Environmental Protection agency are, “Organically grown” food is food grown and processed using no synthetic fertilizers or pesticides. Pesticides derived from natural sources (such as biological pesticides) may be used in producing organically grown food.” Biological pesticides are certain types of pesticides that occur naturally such as baking soda and canola oil and unless diluted with contaminated water, these biopesticides should be safe from the norovirus.

Resources:

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Norovirus. Updated July 26, 2013. Accessed September 6, 2013.

Canadian Press. Nine dead after norovirus outbreak at B.C. care home: chief medical officer. (2013). Edmonton Journal. Accessed September 6, 2013.

English News. Norovirus outbreak hits Australia’s Queensland. (2013). Accessed September 6, 2013.

Environmental Protection Agency. Organic Farming. (2012). Accessed September 6, 2013.

Medscape. Pesticides May Spread Norovirus. (2013). Accessed September 6, 2013.

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