Health officials are warning that a new strain of norovirus could lead to a lot more sickness in Minnesota this winter.
The Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) confirmed the first outbreak of the GII.17 Kawasaki strain was reported in Minnesota last week, with "sporadic" instances of the illness having initially appeared earlier this year.
MDH has investigated more than 20 outbreaks of norovirus, also known as the winter vomiting bug, in the state since the beginning of September.
Whether the new strain will lead to more norovirus cases this year remains to be seen, but MDH admits it is definitely a possibility and is urging people to take precautions to limit its spread.
"Every few years, a new strain of norovirus emerges and causes many illnesses. We don’t know yet if this new strain will lead to an increase in the number of outbreaks reported, but it could,” Amy Saupe, a foodborne epidemiologist with MDH, said. "If we’re meticulous about washing our hands and handling food properly, we may be able to limit the impact.”
Norovirus can cause nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, abdominal pain, head and body aches and a general run-down feeling, with symptoms appearing 24-48 hours after becoming exposed to the virus, which can last one to two days.
MDH has also reiterated that "stomach flu" is an incorrect and confusing term when used to describe norovirus. Influenza viruses affect the respiratory system, norovirus does not. People who say they have "stomach flu" will generally have a norovirus infection, it said.
How is it transmitted?
The way the virus is spread is, by MDH's own admission, gross – as it passes from one to another via the "fecal-oral" route.
This means the virus is found on the feces (or vomit) of someone infected or recently infected, and it's commonly passed on when they then go on to handle food eaten by others.
MDH notes that one recent outbreak in Minnesota happened in a restaurant, with employees who had been suffering from diarrhea passing it on to at least 25 customers.
The best way to stop spreading it, therefore, is by thoroughly washing your hands before handling food or eating – and to prevent getting it, try and avoid eating food prepared by someone who is ill, or has recently vomited or had diarrhea.
Other tips include:
- If someone in your household is sick with vomiting or diarrhea, have them use a separate bathroom, if possible.
- Wash your hands after using the toilet.
- Clean surfaces with soap and water and sanitize with a bleach solution to kill any norovirus that was spread to bathroom or kitchen surfaces.
- Promptly wash soiled clothing in hot water.
- Wash your hands after helping children in the bathroom or touching surfaces that may have vomit or feces on them.