What the Local Outbreak of Norovirus Means For You

Dr. Gary Simon of George Washington University shares where the bug comes from and how you can avoid it.

As of yesterday, 85 cases of norovirus have been identified at George Washington University. Officials say there is “no single commonality” among the cases, but point out that most of the students who have reported illnesses live on campus in Foggy Bottom and Mount Vernon.

We asked Dr. Gary Simon, chief of infectious diseases at George Washington University, what we should know about the virus so we don’t get a real-life Contagion situation on our hands.

What is the norovirus?

It’s a virus that’s part of the Caliciviridae family that causes gastroenteritis in people.

Where does the name come from?

“Noro” comes from an outbreak that occurred in Norwalk, Ohio, years and years ago. It was called Norwalk Agent, and now it’s called the norovirus. [Editor’s note: A norovirus outbreak occurred in 1968 at a Norwalk school.]

How common is the norovirus in the US?

Among the viral infections that cause gastrointestinal symptoms, it’s one of the most common. It may be the most common out of outbreaks or clusters, but it’s hard to handle because most cases are not reported.

What are its symptoms?

Nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, muscle aches, and low-grade fever.

How long do symptoms last?

Just one to two days.

Are there any medications or treatments people can take when suffering from norovirus?

There are no medicines they can take to treat the virus itself. It’s all symptomatic relief. They should keep hydrated with fluids, and maybe use anti-nausea medications. But no, there are no specific treatments.

If someone hasn’t caught the virus yet, what can he or she do to stay healthy?

Wash your hands. A lot. That’s how it spread, obviously, through contaminated fluid or water. For the most part, it’s spread through contact with somebody who’s been infected.

Is this something that could have been prevented by getting the flu shot?

No. It’s not influenza, though I’ve heard that rumor being floated around. I’m not sure why people call it stomach flu, because there’s no relation.

But being on a college campus helps spread sickness faster, right?

Really, it’ll happen in any enclosed environment where people are in close contact with one another, and places where people eat the same food. It’s a classic shipboard infection. It’s just very contagious.

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