Outbreak of norovirus hits Rhode Island

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Rhode Island is experiencing a general increase in cases of norovirus – a category of diseases similar to the stomach flu – but the University has not been affected.

The Rhode Island Department of Health uses syndromic surveillance to monitor the number of norovirus cases, tracking changes in levels of reported cases instead of counting individual cases. “There are reporting mechanisms in place with schools, nursing homes and emergency (medical) departments,” said Annemarie Beardsworth, spokeswoman for the department. “They report back to the DOH an increase in the number of cases – they give a general summary.”

“All those systems that report back to the DOH are seeing increased cases of norovirus at the same time,” she added. “Normally what we expect at this time of year is a small cluster of an increase. What is significant this year is all those segments are reporting an increase at the same time.”

But the increase in cases should not be cause for panic, wrote Edward Wheeler, director of University Health Services, in an e-mail to The Herald. Periodic outbreaks occur in certain settings, such as day care centers, nursing homes and cruise ships.

The increase in cases statewide has not yet touched campus, Wheeler said.

“So far this semester we have not had any significant increases in the number of patients with diarrhea seen at University Health Services or admitted to the nursing inpatient unit,” Wheeler wrote. “We always have a few cases of probable diarrhea a week. If we see a significant increase, then we may test for (the norovirus) to see if it is in our community.”

The family of noroviruses all share similar effects, primarily “the sudden onset of gastrointestinal problems, nausea and diarrhea,” Beardsworth said. Norovirus can also sometimes cause “stomach cramping, low-grade fever, chills, aches and headache,” Wheeler wrote. “It is very common,” he added.

The duration of the illness can vary among individuals. “With most people, the illness usually lasts for one or two days,” Beardsworth said.

The disease spreads through contact with contaminated stool or vomit, Wheeler wrote, and the ways in which it can be contracted are “eating food or liquids contaminated with the virus, touching surfaces contaminated with the virus and then touching your mouth, and sharing eating utensils or sometimes contaminated towels and face cloths.”

Older children and adults are at the highest risk of contracting the infection, according to the Web site of the state Department of Health, but young children and the elderly can experience harsher symptoms.

Beardsworth recommended those with the virus should keep hydrated, rest and stay at home. But, she said, prevention, especially by thorough hand-washing, is the key.

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