Monday, December 18, 2006

Live from Indy, it's norovirus!

Welcome to Meet that Pathogen, the blog entry that introduces you to the viruses and bacteria making today’s headlines. And today’s focus is none other than that current page-one favorite, that star of radio, internet and health advisory alike, the veritable Tom Cruise of micro-organisms, the norovirus.

Currently making headlines for likely sickening 370 people who ate at an Olive Garden in the Indianapolis area, the bug has also been tagged the culprit for the 975-person outbreak linked to the famed Dinosaur restaurant in Syracuse, N.Y. Around the same time, it afflicted an Applebee’s in Michigan, where dozens of patrons were infected, forcing the restaurant to close. After the place reopened, more customers were stricken, pushing the toll of victims to 250 and forcing the outlet to shut again.

Despite that recent streak of damage, the virus is relatively unknown within the restaurant industry, where cries of “Food-borne illness!” usually signal outbreaks of E. coli, salmonella or listeria. Perhaps that’s because norovirus doesn’t have to be food-borne. Indeed, authorities say it’s much more likely to be passed from person-to-person, either through direct contract, or by touching surfaces like a bathroom doorknob. The Centers for Disease Control has reportedly looked at 11 norovirus outbreaks in New York State. Only two were the result of food being contaminated. Seven resulted from an infected person spreading the contagion, which is what authorities expect was the case at the Indianapolis-area Olive Garden.

But the germ has become as common as deck chairs in the cruise-ship industry. And, indeed, one of its many aliases is cruise-ship virus. It’s also well-known as the Norwalk virus, so named after Norwalk, Ohio, where it caused a highly publicized and extensive outbreak among grade-schoolers in 1968.

The symptoms it evokes have generated a list of names for the collection of ailments, including winter vomiting disease, stomach flu and the catch-all term food poisoning. The signs include vomiting, diarrhea, stomach pains, nausea, and fever is common, all of which typically pass in a matter of days.

Sanitation geeks usually wince and curse when they hear any of the bug’s names being used, not so much because of its effects on humans, but because it’s relatively difficult to eradicate. In Indianapolis, for instance, authorities reportedly told the unit’s managers to clean every hard surface with a bleach solution. The chain kept the store closed for two days to sanitize it.

This is a pathogen that, sadly, is likely to become more familiar to the foodservice industry as more outbreaks are logged. The industry perhaps has work to do in strengthening its defenses. In Indiana, officials are understandably speaking with the Olive Garden’s management about hand-washing policies. But they’re also discussing the outlet’s sick-leave policy, since three employees have tested positive for the virus.

Well, we’re out of time. Next on Meet the Pathogen: An interview with Listeria.

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