Attacking the illnesses that don’t have to happen
More than five million people get sick with foodborne noroviruses each year. Almost 150,000 of these people go to the hospital, and some of them have died. The tragic thing about these statistics is that nearly 100 percent of illnesses caused by noroviruses are preventable.
“These are what I call highly preventable cases of disease and death. It doesn’t have to happen,” said Angela Fraser, a researcher and associate professor for Clemson’s department of food, nutrition and packaging science. “Noroviruses are the most common cause of acute gastrointestinal illness in the world. Acute gastrointestinal illness basically means you get sick, and the symptoms are vomiting or diarrhea.”
Fraser is working on a $25 million, USDA-funded project, called NoroCORE, aimed at researching and preventing illness caused by noroviruses. Representing Clemson as one of the project’s 18 partner institutions, Fraser’s research for NoroCORE focuses on conducting research and educating the public and food industries about noroviruses.
As a part of her NoroCORE research, Fraser and a graduate student conducted the largest environmental study of noroviruses to date, visiting 753 public restrooms in food service operations in South Carolina, New Jersey and Ohio. Students swabbed four different surfaces in the bathrooms, including faucet handles and doorknobs, collecting over 5,000 samples. Although they’ve only analyzed around 500 samples so far, the results show that about two percent of the samples contained noroviruses.
“This means that it [noroviruses] could be present. What we want to communicate is that bathrooms need to be better cleaned,” said Fraser. “We’re trying to help those [restaurant] operators focus on what surfaces they need to clean and sanitize.”
In addition to thorough hand washing and staying away from others when sick, Fraser lists proper vomit clean up as an often-overlooked way to prevent the spread of noroviruses.
“People don’t know how to clean up vomit. They usually just clean the area around the vomit,” said Fraser. “Some of the epidemiological studies show that it [noroviruses from vomit] can spread 25 feet.”
Fraser addresses this issue in the educational materials she is developing for NoroCORE; she instructs that you wipe down the surface and surrounding area with a bleach solution, comprised of a quarter cup of bleach to a gallon of water, after removing the debris. She also warns that noroviruses can spread through the air, so she recommends wearing a mask while cleaning vomit.
“A big problem working with norovirus education, just like any kind of education, is that people are inundated with information. One day we tell people to do this, and the next day we do that and there is so much information available on the web. People can’t discern what is fact and what is fiction,” said Fraser.
Through working with NoroCORE, however, Fraser aims to prevent illness caused by noroviruses by making her science accessible to the food industry and to the public. To find accurate information about norovirus prevention, click here.
“Through good science that translates into practice that is implemented, we can reduce the number of people who are sickened by noroviruses,” said Fraser.
-Ashley Hedrick, Class of 2015