Traverse City Record-Eagle

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December 8, 2010

Norovirus: Stomach bug on the move through area

Good hygiene can help stave off widespread outbreaks

BELLAIRE — Kim Scott recently heard norovirus was beginning to spread into the region.

She knew it wouldn't be long until she noticed its effects at Bellaire Pharmacy, where she works as a pharmacy technician.

Sure enough, within the past week Pepto-Bismol and Pedialyte have become more frequent sellers. And several doctors have called looking for anti-nausea suppositories for patients.

Health professionals, particularly in areas north of Traverse City, are encouraging good hygiene and handwashing to prevent widespread outbreaks of the very contagious stomach bug.

Reports of illnesses in schools and communities across Antrim, Charlevoix, Emmet and Otsego counties prompted the Health Department of Northwest Michigan to issue an advisory about norovirus, a quick-moving illness that can cause stomach cramps, nausea, vomiting and diarrhea.

Patients usually are sick for a day or two, but the virus can spread through contact with infected people, food or surfaces. That's why people are particularly susceptible in cold-weather months, when they are cooped up indoors, said Dr. Joshua Meyerson, the health department's medical director.

Norovirus is not required to be reported to health departments, so it's often difficult to pinpoint the origin of illness. But when stomach symptoms break out quickly among a group of people, "it's almost always due to norovirus," Meyerson said.

In Grand Traverse County, health workers suspected two norovirus outbreaks in October, including at a company luncheon and at a day-care center, said Fred Keeslar, director of the county's health department. Neither were proven.

"We could have sporadic cases going through and we wouldn't even know it was happening," Keeslar said. "It can be, so to speak, under the radar."

For that reason, he and Meyerson both urged vigilance toward poper hygiene.

Staff members in Central Lake Public Schools retained many of the cleaning practices started last year, when the H1N1 influenza strain sickened children and closed schools across the region.

A few students have been ill with stomach symptoms, but not enough to be considered an outbreak, Superintendent Steve Paliewicz said.

Custodians use a spray disinfectant on furniture and teachers have wipes in classrooms, he said. Common areas such as drinking fountains, keyboards and doorknobs have extra focus.

Jessica Yuhaus, a preschool teacher at Sprigs-N-Sprouts child care in Alden, reminds children about washing their hands and keeping their fingers out of their mouths.

They range in age from about 18 months to 4 years. Caregivers clean toys every day to prevent germs from spreading, and soak toys in bleach water after the youngest children — who are more likely to chew or drool on them — set them down.

"Even though we're teaching them, it doesn't always happen," Yuhaus said. "We remind them."

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