Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Reason to feel a little queasy

Sitting here at an industry conference on viruses, I need to dispense with the myths first. No, we’re not all wearing face masks and gloves, and, yes, people do shake hands. No one decides what to take from the breakfast buffet by watching what the germ experts eat, and I’ve not seen a single swab dragged across a surface. Indeed, a passer-by wouldn’t suspect the gathering was devoted to restaurant viruses if it weren’t for the obvious shivering and cold sweats of one participant. That, unfortunately, would be me.

Hey, I understand that viruses have their place in the biological world. I just wish that place wasn’t increasingly a restaurant. As one speaker put it during the first-of-its-kind conference, “last winter was an enormous winter” for the sub-microscopic bugs, and a variant called the norovirus in particular. Its success in contaminating restaurants at the tail end of 2006 is “probably why you’re having this meeting,” Jan Vinje of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention remarked to the audience of restaurateurs, suppliers and regulators.

He noted that 18 states recorded increases in food-related norovirus outbreaks during 2006, many by factors of several hundred percent.

He and others noted that norovirus is already the leading cause of food-borne illness, with restaurants and delis figuring by far as the major source of the outbreaks. The industry has been implicated in 41 percent of the situations, far ahead of the home kitchen. Clearly viruses, and norovirus in particular, are emerging as a major threat to the nation’s eating places, if not the safety threat that trumps all others.

The march of the pathogen is scary, but what had me hyperventilating into a paper bag is the difficulty of beating the bug. Research presented at the conference, straightforwardly knighted Viruses, showed that a type of norovirus can survive on kitchens and baths for three to six weeks after a contamination.

Even worse, Christine Moe of Emory University revealed that restaurant employees infected with norovirus can stop showing symptoms long before they cease “shedding” the virus, or excreting large amounts of it in their feces. Typically a worker sickened by the virus is allowed to return to the job two or three days after the symptoms disappear, on the assumption they’re no longer infectious. In reality, Moe indicated, the danger to other employees or guests could persist for weeks. A person shedding the virus is just an inadvertent touch away from infecting others.

As she noted, that raises tough questions about restaurants’ sick-leave policies. You can’t keep an employee from earning a wage for several weeks at a stretch because they were sickened by a virus. But how do you protect guests and other employees from being infected if the carrier resumes the job?

The solution, Moe stressed, is aggressive handwashing and glove wear. But as another speaker pointed out, that’s easier said than done. A recent study looked at how often food handlers should be washing their hands to avert the safety risks they routinely encounter. It adjudged that average at 8.6 times per hour per employee, recounted Carol Selman of the CDC. “I tried it myself,” she explained, acknowledging that she had to stop because the eight-times-an-hour pace chapped her hands.

Day One provided plenty of bracing moments, but was light on solutions. Speakers noted that work on a norovirus vaccine is just beginning, and pointed out that laboratories had just recently discovered how to “culture” a version that could be used for research. Nor is there a simple, quick test to determine if a person suffering from flu-like symptoms is indeed infected with norovirus. Five states can’t even do the testing through more elaborate means.

So what’s the solution? Hopefully I’ll find out tomorrow, when the focus shifts to defense against viruses.

No comments:

Post a Comment