By Maryam Henein, HoneyColony Original
Halfway through January, and I had not gotten sick. Joy, I thought to myself. Some of the reasons I escaped sickdom, I believed, were that I take superfoods, don’t shake hands, and use my sleeve to open public doorknobs.
But then a few days after my internal observation, my partner returned home from a conference in Vegas with a knock-you-out zombie-like flu that landed him in bed for several days shivering, burning up, coughing, and congested.
Two days passed and I was still fine, despite a shared bed and paraphernalia. But on the third night, following a delicious meal of guacamole and organic bison burgers, I awoke at 2:15 a.m. with the taste of meat in my mouth. (I don’t eat meat often, but when I do, it’s clean and organic. I consider myself a raw foodist by summer and a Paleolithic cavewoman in winter.)
I fumbled through the dark to the bathroom where I wretched and wretched and wretched. The bug seized my guts and forced me to my knees until I had nothing left to offer the porcelain bowl. Was this food poisoning?
I staggered back to bed where I lay down and breathed deep. After a short reprieve I scrambled back, this time to expel from the other end. I alternated between diarrhea and vomiting for the next five hours. By seven a.m., I was spent and exhausted with burning fever.
By the third day of being confined to my bed with zero in my tummy, my partner discovered online that I had caught a bug, which is racing through Europe.
“Look it up. It’s called N-O-R-O virus,” he said, spelling it out.
It was as if he knew that I had heard “neuro,” not a good word when you have an active imagination and are reading a memoir titled Brain on Fire about anti-NMDA receptor encephalitis, a sometimes-deadly autoimmune disease that involves inflammation of the brain.
But what I had caught was thankfully not a neurovirus, but rather, a “vomiting bug,” characterized by nausea, hurling, and diarrhea. Norovirus tends to hit seasonally and suddenly, lasting for up to 62 hours. The bug is “very contagious and very unpleasant,” said John Harris, a norovirus expert at the Health Protection Agency in the United Kingdom. After three days, you are no longer infectious.
Could the bug have synthesized, we wondered? Unlike my partner, I had not gotten a cough or congestion.
Norovirus is actually a group of viruses responsible for most epidemic gastroenteritis. It’s been bandied about in the past as an interchangeable term for the stomach flu, but the phrasing can be incredibly misleading for the public, according to the January 14 edition of The Huffington Post Canada.
“It sounds like your partner had the real flu, and while you can have gastrointestinal issues with the flu, norovirus is completely different,” explained Dr. Gerald Evans, a professor of medicine, biomedical and molecular sciences at Queen’s University and the medical director for infection prevention and control at Kingston General Hospital. “The flu is a respiratory virus, while noro takes place in the gastrointestinal system. You don’t get a cough and you don’t get a sore throat with norovirus.”
How strange … I had not caught my partner’s bug, after all. But, says Evans, scientists are still speculating about “viral interference,” which means that if you have one virus, for some reason, it prevents you from getting infected with another. “This is not a well understood mechanism, but it’s a theory,” says Evans.
In England, more than one million people have been infected with norovirus. “For each reported case, an estimated 288 go unreported, meaning around 1.1 million people have had the virus since the summer,” The Sun reported on December 29. Meanwhile, dozens of hospitals in England have been forced to close their wards to control the outbreak. Around 5,000 NHS workers are reportedly calling in sick every day. In Ireland, the Wedford General Hospital actually imposed a complete ban on visitors to curb a norovirus outbreak.
In the United States, the virus sickens as many as 21 million each year and leads to 70,000 hospitalizations and 800 deaths according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The Ferrari Of The Virus World And Larry The Vomiting Robot
Professor Ian Goodfellow of the Imperial London College in the U.K. has spent the past 10 years studying norovirus. He calls it “the Ferrari of the virus world,” not because your tummy goes from 0 to 60 in seconds, but because it requires a mere “20 particles to seize command of its victims.” It’s ruthlessly efficient.
The virus is spread through an infected person’s feces or via an airborne droplet of vomit, and—perhaps most often of all—by unwashed hands. “It’s not that it’s in food, but more often than not, it’s in the environment,” Evans said. “You don’t want to know how much stuff from people’s intestinal tracts is all over the environment.” Ew!
Now, thanks to a robot, we know a little puke goes a long way.
Researchers at Derbyshire Health and Safety Laboratory have developed a “vomiting robot” called Larry to help them understand how far the virus can spread when someone spews it around the room. They push a button and, presto, Larry projectile-pukes on command. They then analyze the spread of droplets. Larry’s vomit can also be tagged with fluorescent dye, making it easy for scientists to track.
The most common places for norovirus to spread are residences where many people are living together—think nursing homes, schools, day cares and cruise ships. Interestingly, the virus particularly likes people with the blood type O, which constitutes about 45 percent of the population, including me. This is thanks to the receptor to which the virus attaches itself. If you have another blood type, you can still get norovirus, but the disease will likely not be as severe.
On average, someone infected with norovirus spreads it to about seven other people through direct touch or contaminated surfaces and food.
If you do contract norovirus, Evans suggests you lay low and wait to get better since there is really no treatment. While I am no doctor, I personally recommend loading up on liquids (once you can keep them down) and taking a high-end probiotic.
Unfortunately, norovirus can be quite the trial to your health. I can personally attest that it wipes you even days after you’ve stopped hurling.
“It’s very traumatic,” Evans said. “It’s amazing how fast it starts, and it’s amazing how bad you feel for at least a day or two.”
While there are no long-term effects, the crappiest thing about noro is that you’re never immune to it, because there are so many strains. “Once you get it, you can pretty well guarantee you will get it again,”said Evans.