The Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services say health officials across the state are seeing an increase in outbreaks of gastrointestinal illnesses- investigating eight norovirus outbreaks in the last six weeks. Outbreaks of norovirus often increase in winter months and this year’s activity is similar to outbreaks seen in 2016. This year’s outbreaks have occurred in the counties of Cascade, Fergus, Flathead, Gallatin, Meagher, Missoula, Silver Bow and Yellowstone.
Norovirus, a very contagious virus that can affect anyone, is the most common cause of gastroenteritis in Montana and the US. In fact, the average American gets infected with this virus five times in their lifetime.
“Different strains of norovirus can circulate through the state and there is no vaccine,” said Dana Fejes of the DPHHS Communicable Disease Epidemiology Section. “Your best method of prevention is to wash your hands often with soap and water. Once infected, stay hydrated to avoid complications.”
The usual symptoms of norovirus include diarrhea, vomiting, nausea, and stomach pain. There is no specific treatment for this illness and most individuals recover in 1 to 3 days. The illness can last longer and be more severe in young children, older people, or people who have other chronic health conditions.
The virus is highly contagious and can spread rapidly between persons and through contaminated food or water. Norovirus can survive on surfaces and be transferred to other people when they touch the contaminated surface.
DPHHS and local authorities are reminding individuals to do their part to protect the community. “Stay home when you are ill and don’t prepare food for others,” Fejes said.
Public health officials advise following simple tips to prevent the spread of norovirus and many other infectious illnesses:
- Practice proper hand hygiene: Wash your hands carefully with soap and water, especially after using the bathroom or changing diapers and always before eating or preparing food. Alcohol-based hand sanitizers can be used in addition to hand washing. But, they should not be used as a substitute for washing with soap and water.
- Take care in the kitchen: Carefully wash fruits and vegetables, and cook oysters and other shellfish thoroughly before eating them.
- Do not prepare food while ill: People who are infected with norovirus should not prepare food for others while they have symptoms and for 3 days after they recover from their illness.
- Clean and disinfect contaminated surfaces: After throwing up or having diarrhea, immediately clean and disinfect contaminated surfaces. Use a chlorine bleach solution with a concentration of 1000–5000 parts per million (generally 5 to 25 tablespoons of standard household bleach per gallon of water) or other disinfectant labeled as effective against norovirus.
- Wash laundry thoroughly: Immediately remove clothing or linens that may be contaminated and wash with detergent at the maximum length available cycle, then machine dry. Handle soiled items carefully—without agitating them—to avoid spreading virus.