Health officials probe virus outbreak

Frequently washing your hands and staying home if you are nauseaus are the best ways to prevent the gastrointestinal disease cause by the Norwalk-like virus which broke out the past week or so in Wallowa County. Photo by Kim Lamb

Oregon Health Division officials this week are investigating an especially virulent disease which is bringing Wallowa County residents to their knees with severe nausea, vomiting and diarrhea.

Through lab tests completed on Monday health division investigators confirmed seven cases of Norwalk-like disease. An additional 25 five patients - mostly employees of Wallowa Memorial hospital - have presented with symptoms of the disease, according to Glen F. Kinney, a health division epidemiologist who is investigating the outbreak in Wallowa County.

The outbreak has prompted the local hospital to close its cafeteria and cancel a Christmas party scheduled for Friday at the nursing home in an attempt to keep the disease from spreading, according to Larry Davy, hospital administrator.

"Our goal is to keep people in the nursing home from getting it," said Davy.

Norwalk is a strain of virus that causes a gastrointestinal disease characterized by sudden onset of nausea, vomiting and watery diarrhea. It has been in the news recently because it swept through several cruise ships, sickening thousands of passengers.

The Wallowa County cases are thought to be connected to an outbreak last month in Union County.

The health division has documented approximately 80 cases of Norwalk-like disease so far this year in Oregon, according to Dr. Emilio Debess, state epidemiologist.

That tiny Wallowa County has seven of those cases represents "a pretty big hit." Kinney added that statistically, if health care providers have documented 25 cases of a disease like Norwalk, "10 times that many people actually have the agent."

"If it gets into the schools we'll have 200 to 250 cases," he said, adding, "the kids will get over it and it will have ruined a buch of Christmases."

The disease is referred to as Norwalk-like because the virus is a member of the Norwalk family of viruses. The strain which has hit Wallowa County generally lasts 48 to 72 hours, according to Kinney. The worst of it, he said, is a 6-12 hour period with "really toe-curling vomiting and liquid diarrhea."

"It can be like a near death experience," said Kinney.

Fortunately, the disease is rarely fatal, although it represents a serious threat to the elderly and persons with underlying diseases.

The virus is transmitted by hand-to-hand contact and by contact with "touch points" - door knobs, hand rails, and faucets. The latter form of transmission is what prompted Davy to close the hospital cafeteria, which has a salad bar.

"Salad bars where several people touch the same spoon is an ideal environment for the spread of this virus," said Davy.

Dr. Debess said the best way to prevent the disease from spreading is by frequently washing their hands and keeping touch points clean.

"Prevention is very significant and important," he said, noting that hand washing should be done with ordinary soap and water, rather than alcohol-based cleansers. Touch points should be cleaned with bleach wherever possible. "You don't need anything new or fancy. It's simple cleanliness," he said, adding, ""If you have nausea, stay home."

The Center for Disease Control recommends that people afflicted with the Norwalk-like virus stay home for 48 hours after they feel better.

There is no vaccination or medication to prevent the disease.

"You pretty much have to ride it out," said Davy. "You lay low and wait for the symptoms to go away." Kinney added that patients can increase their comfort by drinking sports drinks which contain essential minerals lost through vomiting and diarrhea. If you must drink soft drinks, the ones with sugar are better than diet varieties. Anybody who cannot keep food or fluids down for more than a couple of days should see their physician, he said.

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