SALT LAKE CITY — An outbreak of norovirus has many residents bracing for unexpected nausea, vomiting and diarrhea. But simple hygiene habits can help to slow the spread of the undesirable disease.
"It's very fast-moving and very contagious," said Salt Lake Valley Health Department epidemiologist Jennifer Robertson.
The virus, a gastrointestinal illness, is caused by a new strain of a genetic variant that was first reported in Australia in September. The new version is being called Genotype II.4 or "Sydney 2012."
Robertson said the illness is spread when someone comes in contact with an infected person, such as a caregiver, or when someone ingests food or water that has been contaminated with the virus or has touched the same surface as someone with the virus. It spreads easily, especially in closed settings, she said.
Norovirus symptoms include vomiting, diarrhea, nausea, stomach pain, headache, body aches and sometimes fever. It can last two to three days, or up to a week in some people. One concern is that it can lead to harmful dehydration in young children or older adults who also have other illnesses.
"But it can make anyone sick," Robertson said.
The health department is investigating multiple "clusters" of the disease throughout the valley, specifically among nursing homes, which she said are often the hardest hit due to close living quarters and the time of the year.
The highly contagious bug is believed to have sickened approximately 250 missionaries at The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints' Missionary Training Center in Provo recently. The virus moved quickly through the facility, but precautions were being taken to prevent further spread of illness, including encouragement of proper hand-washing techniques.
Of the cases that have been reported, numbers are double that of last year's spread of the illness. And not all cases are reported.
To report a presumed case of norovirus or other reportable illnesses, individuals are encouraged to call their local health departments. In the Salt Lake Valley, the reporting line is 385-468-8888. More information about the virus can be found online at www.slvhealth.org.
State officials received warning of the rise of the virus, as it has also spread quickly throughout other countries, including Australia, where it is believed to have begun.
Cruise ships, schools, hospitals, restaurants and other gathering places have borne the brunt of the illness in its recent spread, as large numbers of people are confined to a smaller space, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Travelers are urged to take precautions, including limited association with infected parties.
While norovirus, or "winter vomiting virus," is most common at this time of the year, Robertson said a new strain seems to pop up every two or three years, as immunity to other strains increases and random genetic mutations arise.
Hospitalizations are rare, she said, and deaths due to norovirus even rarer — but not impossible.
The CDC reports that 50 percent more cases are reported in years when a new strain of the virus is present.
To avoid contraction of the illness, the health department encourages proper and regular hand-washing, using warm water and soap. Alcohol-based hand sanitizers can be supplemental but should not replace regular hand-washing, Robertson said.
"And if you're sick, stay home," she said.
Those suffering from the illness should not prepare food for others, and surfaces should be cleaned and disinfected with a bleach-based household cleaner.