Prolific Global Stomach Bug Takes Hold in U.S.

The new strain has been blamed for 140 outbreaks since September.

Friday, Jan 25, 2013  |  Updated 3:25 PM PDT
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A new strain of norovirus has been blamed for 141 outbreaks since September. Janet Kwak reports for the NBC4 News at 11 p.m. on Jan. 24, 2013.

Janet Kwak, Rodney Danson

A new strain of norovirus has been blamed for 141 outbreaks since September. Janet Kwak reports for the NBC4 News at 11 p.m. on Jan. 24, 2013.

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A nasty new strain of stomach bug sweeping the globe is taking over in the U.S. and has caused more than 140 gut-wrenching outbreaks since September, health officials said.

The new strain of norovirus has sickened people in Japan, Western Europe, and other parts of the world. It was first identified last year in Australia and dubbed the Sydney strain.

It may not be unusually dangerous – some scientists don't think it is – but it is different, and many people might not be able to fight off its gut-wrenching effects.

In the U.S., it is now accounting for about 60 percent of norovirus outbreaks, according to a report released Thursday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Norovirus – once known as Norwalk virus – is highly contagious and often spreads in places like schools, cruise ships and nursing homes, especially during the winter. Annually, it contributes to about 70,000 hospitalizations and 800 deaths, mostly among young children and the elderly, according to the CDC.

Sometimes mistakenly called stomach flu, the virus causes bouts of vomiting and diarrhea for a few days.

To protect yourself from norovirus or stop its spread, the CDC recommends:

  • Washing your hands often;
  • Rinsing fruits and vegetables;
  • Cooking shellfish thoroughly;
  • Cleaning surfaces and washing laundry;
  • Avoid preparing food or caring for others when sick.

A new strain evolves every two to three years; the last was in 2009. The Sydney strain's appearance has coincided with a spike in influenza, perhaps contributing to the perception that this is a particularly bad flu season in the U.S.

Ian Goodfellow, a prominent researcher at England's University of Cambridge, calls norovirus “the Ferrari of viruses” for the speed at which it passes through a large group of people.

"It can sweep through an environment very, very quickly. You can be feeling quite fine one minute and within several hours suffer continuous vomiting and diarrhea," he said

Health officials have grown better at detecting new strains and figuring out which one is the culprit. They now know that norovirus is also the most common cause of food poisoning in the U.S.

It's spread by infected food handlers who don't do a good job washing their hands after using the bathroom. But unlike salmonella and other foodborne illnesses, norovirus can also spread in the air, through droplets that fly when a sick person vomits.

"It's a headache" to try to control, said Dr. John Crane, a University of Buffalo infectious disease specialist who had to deal with a norovirus outbreak in a hospital ward a couple of years ago.

Each year, noroviruses cause an estimated 21 million illnesses and 800 deaths, the CDC says.

For those infected, there's really no medicine. They just have to ride it out for the day or two of severe symptoms, and guard against dehydration, experts said.

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