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That Gut Feeling: The Stomach Flu and Food Safety

Krista Fredrick

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Krista Fredrick | February 28, 2013 | 0

Stomach BugAlthough we’re still smack-dab in the middle of flu season (it stretches from October to mid-May), you have to remain vigilant about another kind of “flu” threatening the health of Americans.

Stomach flu, otherwise known as viral gastroenteritis, isn’t actually related to influenza (seasonal flu).  But the stomach flu sometimes has some of the same symptoms as seasonal flu. These include fever, congestion, aching muscles and fatigue.

Norovirus is the number one cause of acute gastroenteritis , also known as the “stomach bug” or “stomach flu.” Bacteria, parasites and lactose intolerance may also cause gastroenteritis, but we’re going to take a closer look at norovirus, how it’s transmitted in restaurant environments, and how you can keep yourself—and your customers—from falling victim.

The pathogen called norovirus (Norwalk virus) is of particular concern to public health authorities and food safety advocates because it’s easily transmissible. Infected individuals spread the virus directly to others, or indirectly via objects they touch or food or drinks contaminated during preparation, cooking and serving.

Viral gastroenteritis is a potentially deadly inflammation of the stomach and the intestines (the gastrointestinal tract). Norovirus-caused gastroenteritis can strike any time, but cases peak between December and February.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says the incidence of fatalities from gastroenteritis more than doubled between 1999 and 2007. Its study revealed that deaths increased from about 7,000 per year to more than 17,000, with aged 65 years and older making up 83 percent of the fatalities. Clostridium difficile and norovirus were the most common infectious causes of gastroenteritis-associated deaths.

Here are some basic facts about norovirus that all food handlers, food safety managers and anyone else working in the food services industry should be aware of:

Sources. Norovirus infection usually starts when foods touched by infected food handlers.  Produce and shellfish are common culprits.

Incubation period. 12 to 48 hours.

Symptoms. Symptoms mimic those of other foodborne illnesses: nausea, vomiting, stomach pain, and watery—but usually not bloody—diarrhea. Adults often suffer from diarrhea; children, on the other hand, suffer usually from vomiting. Other signs to look for include dehydration and fever.

Illness duration. For most, it’s one to three days. However, among the vulnerable (young children, elderly, and those with a compromised immune system), it can be up to six days.

What to do. Because antiboitics don’t work for viruses, you’ll have to wait it out and treat the symptoms. Get plenty of rest and drink lots of fluids to prevent dehydration. You’ll need to replace salts and minerals lost through vomiting and diarrhea. If you can’t hydrate sufficiently, seek your physician’s help.

Prevention. Washing your hands frequently with soap and lots of running water is the easiest and best way to prevent norovirus contamination. If you’re a food handler, avoid touching ready-to-eat food and clean and disinfect food-preparation equipment and surfaces such as counters, sinks, and cutting boards.  Thoroughly wash fruits and vegetables. Thoroughly cook shellfish such as oysters before serving. Infants aged 2 months and older can also be vaccinated against severe rotavirus infection, which is the leading cause of severe gastroenteritis in children.

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