In mid-November, the Vineland Veterans Memorial Home suffered an outbreak of a very common and unpleasant illness. Norovirus inflames and unsettles the digestive tract in messy ways, and also can cause cramps, headache and fever. Thankfully, it typical lasts only from one to three days.
In developing countries with less effective health systems, norovirus is a scourge that kills 200,000 people per year.
In the United States, it afflicts many, but mainly is a threat to children and the elderly. There are plenty of the latter in the veterans home.
The state quarantined the home to minimize the spread of the highly contagious virus both to people within the facility and outside. A quarantine was worrisome and inconvenient for relatives and friends of the home’s clients, but the right thing to do.
Fortunately, the outbreak was stopped and the Vineland Veterans Memorial Home reopened in time for Thanksgiving.
Almost all those reading this editorial have had a norovirus infection. People typically contract it five times during their lives, according to “The Vast and Varied Global Burden of Norovirus: Prospects for Prevention and Control,” published last year by PLOS Medicine.
A similar pathogen causing acute gastroenteritis — rotavirus — historically has been the most common cause of severe disease in young children globally and overall remains so. But now there is a vaccine for rotavirus, universally recommended by the World Health Organization, and where it is widely used, norovirus has become the primary affliction of the young.
Norovirus vaccines are in development, but targeting this pathogen that afflicts such a wide range of people at varying degrees of risk will be challenging.
Just having the illness can confer immunity to that particular strain, but even this doesn’t last.
Norovirus is a common cause of travel-associated diarrhea and restaurant-acquired illness — often mistaken for food poisoning. It spreads readily through deployed military troops and health-care facilities.
There is no specific medicine for norovirus. Patients not in the high-risk groups are advised to drink plenty of liquids to replace fluid lost from vomiting and diarrhea, and to avoid passing the virus to others. After recovering, they should clean and disinfect any contaminated surfaces and wash laundry thoroughly.
People should follow some simple practices to help avoid a norovirus illness:
Wash hands carefully with soap and water, especially after using the toilet and always before eating, preparing or handling food.
Wash fruits and vegetables and cook seafood thoroughly, to at least 140 degrees F.
These practices may not only spare you from suffering, but help prevent the suffering of many and serious health risks to some.