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National and World

February 28, 2013

Doctor warns norovirus spreads easily

Oklahoma City —  

With the country in the midst of a record year for influenza cases, doctors at the Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation are warning Oklahomans to watch out for another violent and virulent illness called the norovirus.

Often called the stomach flu or associated with food poisoning, norovirus is a highly contagious virus that can cause intense cramping, vomiting and diarrhea and can lead to serious dehydration, said OMRF President Stephen Prescott, M.D.

“Norovirus gets spread around every year during the winter and spring,” he said. “Much like the influenza virus, the norovirus mutates as it spreads. In March 2012, a new strain of norovirus called GII.4 Sydney began making the rounds in Australia, was spread to Europe and now has landed in America. The new strain could account for an increase in transmission this year.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control, norovirus is the most common cause of acute gastroenteritis in the United States, causing about 21 million illnesses annually. Worldwide about 70,000 are hospitalized, leading to 800 deaths.

“Norovirus begins like most viruses — you inhale it or eat it or rub it into your eyes without even knowing,” Prescott said. “Once it’s in the system, the virus moves to your small intestine and hijacks cells, forcing them to replicate the virus.”

After the cells fill with copies of the virus, they burst open, release more virus into your system and begin repeating the process. It could take fewer than 100 norovirus particles to start the illness, according to the CDC.

When the immune system catches on and begins fighting the illness, the inflammation in the lower intestine causes vomiting, diarrhea and stomach cramping, Prescott said.

“This is what is so ingenious about the norovirus — the unpleasant side effects of the immune reaction cause you to spread it,” he said. “Worse still, the virus is hardy, so it can last on surfaces for a couple of days, waiting to infect someone new.”

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