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Tales from the Dump: Get ready for norovirus

Viruses may be small, but they’re feisty

Warning: the following column may contain words and images that some people may find disturbing. That is what happens when you try to discuss an illness whose two main symptoms are vomiting and diarrhea. Particularly projectile vomiting and explosive diarrhea, both of which sound rather exciting and gross.

Ah, yes — this week I am going to talk a little about the dreaded Norovirus which is spreading across the country as I write. So, if you haven’t got it yet, be prepared for the worst and hope for the best. The best being that you avoid it this year.

You can’t see viruses with the naked eye or even with a standard microscope. You need an electron microscope because they are very small molecules in a protective coat. They get into one’s body, into one’s cells and then they replicate like crazy producing thousands, millions and billions more viruses. These get into your body and you feel fine until they reach a critical mass. One minute you are fine and a minute or two later you are spraying the area with vomit or rushing to the toilet.

It is truly amazing the forces involved as your body expels your wastes and a whole lot of viruses whose job it is to find a new host and replicate there. There are lots of viruses out there, some of which make people sick. They are sometimes called food poisoning, stomach flu or a bug of some sort, even though they aren’t bugs or the flu at all. Years ago, some doctors actually called them the winter vomiting flu because so many kids suffered a bout of them.

Then in 1968, there was a study done on a particularly bad outbreak in Norwalk, Illinois. That is when the Norovirus was first identified and named. What makes this virus so potent is they have rather strong coatings so just washing your hands or using a hand sanitizer doesn’t eliminate them. A sick person sheds millions of them and they get onto surfaces, into food and the air. So people living in close proximity often get sick and start shedding viruses before they even realize they are sick.

Suddenly a school, army base, cruise ship or neighborhood comes down with the illness with 30, 40 or 50 per cent of the people infected and using the washroom for a few days. Thankfully, it only lasts a few days but if you are ill, you know it and don’t want to get very far away. So many people suddenly getting violently ill is why the good old norovirus makes the news so often.

Unfortunately, we can’t see the virus but we can use our imagination to view the scene. Think of vehicle exhaust for a minute. In the winter when it is very cold, you see a cloud of exhaust as all the moisture in it turns to ice crystals. You get the same exhaust in the summer billowing out, you just don’t see it. So imagine that the norovirus suddenly gets a fluorescent orange glow. You don’t see the virus, but its glow is visible.

As a person infected with the virus walks by you see the glow as they shed viruses, as they breathe, a puff of orange comes out. It gets on their hands and clothes, and they spread the glow wherever they go. The virus is out looking for new hosts and there are so many molecules of the virus around they do find and infect more people. They use the toilet and when they flush it an orange glow fill the bathroom as the swirly water launches more virus.

So, if we could see the virus or at least their glow, we could better avoid coming into contact with them but since we can’t we run the risk of catching them. Some humans may think of themselves as the top of the food chain, but to the viruses, we are the bottom. We are hunted, infected, get sick and spread the viruses to others. Even pets or livestock. So, beware. They may be small, but they are quite prolific, and they have been around longer than we have.