Norovirus Outbreak Linked To Reusable Shopping Bag

By Amir Khan on May 9, 2012 1:32 PM EDT

Norovirus
A 2010 outbreak of norovirus was caused by a reusable shopping bag, researchers said. (Photo: Reuters)

Oregon health officials traced a 2010 outbreak of norovirus infections to a reusable shopping bag, showing just how easy it is to spread the nasty bug. The health officials published their findings in the May edition of the Journal of Infectious Diseases.

Norovirus is a virus transmitted through contaminated food and water and is the leading cause of the stomach flu in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.  Norovirus infects more than 20 million people annually, causing nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, muscle aches and fever. The virus can be spread through the air, via small pieces of vomit or feces floating around.

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The virus sickened a group of young soccer players and their parents, seven people total, while they were in a hotel in Washington -- even though none of them came in contact with the first girl to get sick. Researchers were stumped, so to figure out how the outbreak occurred they met with those who were ill to try to find a common denominator.

"We conducted a very extensive interview," Dr. Kimberly Repp, lead researcher and epidemiologist with the Washington County Department of Health and Human Services in Oregon, told WebMD. "It's called a shotgun interview, where we ask about every possible food exposure. There are over 800 questions on the questionnaire."

The researchers traced the infection to food eaten from a reusable shopping bag that was near the first girl who was sick. The bag was put into another hotel room the next where it infected the rest of the group, researchers said. They tested the bag and found that it tested positive for norovirus two weeks after the initial infections.

"This is the first published report of norovirus infection without person-to-person transfer," Repp told ABC News. "Two groups of people were infected by transportation of an inanimate object."

It doesn't take many copies of norovirus to cause an infection, Aron J. Hall, a researcher at the CDC's division of viral diseases said in an editorial accompanying the study. Norovirus is very infectious and only 18 copies can make someone sick.

"It's among the most infectious viruses known to man," Hall told WebMD. "The amount of virus that it would take to get someone sick certainly cannot be seen with the naked eye, and definitely underscores the challenge of removing all potentially infectious viruses from a grocery bag, in this case, or a bed rail in a hospital, or a doorknob in a nursing home."

Repp said people underestimate just how dirty the bags can get.

"We wash our clothes when they're dirty; we should wash our bags, too," she told MSNBC. "You could just wipe it down with Lysol or Clorox."

The CDC recommends using between 5 and 25 tablespoons of bleach to clean areas that could be contaminated with norovirus. Repp said more areas may be contaminated than you think, so it's important to scrub everywhere.

"When cleaning an area after someone is ill, we need to not just be thinking about wiping down the toilet area," she told WebMD. "We need to think about the virus up in the air and landing on everything in that bathroom, and either throwing away or cleaning everything that was exposed."

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