By Nichole Nirei, Intern, Hawaii Department of Health, State Laboratories Division
Aloha – I am Nichole Nirei, a Microbiology student at the University of Hawaii at Manoa (soon to be a graduate joining the masses to search for a job) and an intern at the Hawaii state public health laboratory. Although microbiology is integral to child development (vaccinations, dairy products, breads, strep throat, etc.), I had little idea that it even existed. But once I was introduced to the discipline, I became fascinated with disease and infections. Fast-forward to 2013, and now I’m trying to use my fascination to better understand infections and hopefully to help prevent disease.
Recent increases in norovirus infections and the emergence of a new strain of this short-lived, but gruesome infection have caught the media’s attention. Noroviruses are single-stranded, non-enveloped RNA viruses that can cause pain and torment to anyone who cross their path. Characterized by nausea, vomiting, watery diarrhea and abdominal pain, these microscopic terrors are the leading cause of viral gastroenteritis, affecting everyone from babies to the elderly. In fact, noroviruses can be especially dangerous in infants and the elderly. Not only do they have spectacular symptoms, they can survive in hosts for at least two weeks after the infection and for over a year in contaminated still-water!
There are different genotypes; those that affect humans are genotypes I, II and IV. Strains are typically named after the location where they first emerged. For the last couple of years, norovirus outbreaks have been caused predominantly by GII.4 New Orleans but, in recent months, circulation has shifted to a novel strain, GII.4 Sydney. This is of significance because new emerging strains often lead to increased outbreaks, more hospitalizations and more deaths. Hawaii’s state public health lab, a member of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s CaliciNet, a network that uses a national database to monitor norovirus outbreaks and trends, has already documented the shift here in the Aloha State. It will be very interesting to see which strains are dominating worldwide this season. The virus is constantly and rapidly evolving, and we need to keep track if we want to reduce infections.
Most of us have likely have had an encounter with this well-established warrior. Noroviruses are a relentless pathogen and, although no protection or immunity is guaranteed once you’ve had one, newer strains hit populations harder than those that have been circulating for a while.
To help battle this foe, we must wash, wash, wash! Washing hands for 20 seconds with soap and water, cleaning and disinfecting contaminated surfaces with bleach-based cleaners, and thoroughly washing contaminated clothing makes a big difference. Washing our hands is our best weapon for preventing outbreaks of Norovirus, and interrupting the transmission of many infectious diseases. A Hui Hou!