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Norovirus Outbreak Traced to Reusable Grocery Bag

Study Underscores How Easily Norovirus Can Spread
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WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD

May 9, 2012 -- A new study shows just how easy it is to catch norovirus, the fast-spreading stomach bug that's famous for causing misery on cruise ships.

The study tracked a 2010 outbreak of norovirus among young soccer players in Oregon. Seven out of 17 players who attended an out-of-state tournament fell ill with severe vomiting and diarrhea, but curiously, none of them had been in direct contact with the index case -- the first girl to get sick.

Investigators were stumped.

"We conducted a very extensive interview; it's called a shotgun interview, where we ask about every possible food exposure. There are over 800 questions on the questionnaire," says Kimberly K. Repp, PhD, an epidemiologist with the Washington County Department of Health and Human Services in Hillsboro, Ore.

That helped the researchers figure out what the sick people ate and what the healthy people didn't eat.

The common denominator? Cookies. All the girls who got sick had eaten cookies during a Sunday lunch. By Tuesday, they'd all fallen ill.

Grocery Tote Carried More Than Food

Norovirus is the leading cause food-borne illness in the U.S. But because the cases were isolated to this relatively small group, rather than widely reported by many people who ate the pre-packaged snacks, researchers didn't think the cookies themselves were the source.

"It was something about the cookies, we knew, that was associated with the source of the outbreak," Repp says.

The connection turned out to be a reusable grocery tote bag filled with the cookies and other food items like chips and grapes that had been sitting on the floor of the bathroom where the first girl had repeatedly gotten sick.

The study describes the bag as a reusable open-top grocery bag made from laminated woven polypropylene, a common type you might buy at many grocery stores these days for repeat use.

Investigators swabbed the bag two weeks after the first person fell ill. DNA tests turned up copies of the same strain of norovirus that had infected the girls.

"This is the first-ever reported case of transmitting this virus with an inanimate object, basically," Repp says.

The study is published in the Journal of Infectious Diseases.

The first sick girl said she never touched the bag. So how did the virus get there?

Experts say viral particles likely floated over from the toilet.

"That certainly is an area of active research, involving the dynamics of vomiting, and how are particles dispersed when somebody vomits. There is a limited range, for sure, but exactly how far it is and what the level of risk is 10 feet away or 30 feet away. Certainly, in this case, it was plenty close to allow the virus to float over onto the bag," says Aron J. Hall, DVM, MSPH, of the CDC's division of viral diseases.

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