Officials at the 2018 Winter Olympics are scrambling to contain the outbreak of a vomit-inducing, diarrhea-causing, extremely contagious stomach bug known as norovirus.
As of Thursday night, there were 128 confirmed cases of the norovirus in South Korea, according to the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That’s a significant increase from the initial 32 cases reported earlier this week.
The bug began Sunday amongst a group of security guards staying at the youth training center in Pyeongchang. Nervous organizers have since quarantined at least 1,200 Olympics staffers as a precaution. And South Korean officials deployed roughly 900 military personnel to help with the security shortage.
So far, no athletes have been infected. But officials are on high alert, as some of the security workers showing symptoms reportedly worked at the athletes’ villages.
In light of the norovirus, here’s what you need to know.
What is the norovirus?
The norovirus is also referred to as the “winter vomiting bug,” Lee-Ann Jaykus, the scientific director for NoroCORE, a food safety initiative that’s funded through a $25 million grant from the USDA, told Fox News.
And it’s common: roughly 21 million Americans get the virus each year, according to the CDC.
The norovirus is consumed through the mouth, reaches a person’s gastrointestinal tract and inflames the stomach or intestines, or both. As a result, the virus causes nausea, stomach pain, vomiting and diarrhea, which leads to dehydration. It can also cause fever, headaches and body aches.
While the symptoms can be severe, most people recover within days.
How does it spread?
The norovirus, which has different strains, can spread easily — especially in close spaces, Jaykus said.
A common way the virus is transmitted is through close contact with an infected person. This is either directly or indirectly; such as sharing a bathroom, a dorm room or another communal space. Cruise ships, schools and nursing homes “are the most commonly reported settings for norovirus outbreaks,” the CDC says.
More specifically, however, the virus spreads through fecal matter and vomit.
When an infected person vomits or defecates, “massive amounts [of the virus] are excreted,” Jaykus explained. “There are millions to billions of particles in one just one gram.”
“It only takes a few virus particles to make people sick,” she added.
The virus also spreads through food and contaminated water.
Food handlers who are sick and don’t practice adequate hygiene can easily infect other people. Infected water can also spread the illness, though this more commonly occurs in developing countries, Jaykus noted.
How do you prevent it?
Unlike the flu and other illnesses, there is no vaccine to prevent norovirus.
“Hand washing is hugely important. In fact, it’s the single most important thing for people attending Olympics.”
Keeping your hands washed and thoroughly cleaning contaminated surfaces is key to prevent the spread of infection.
“Hand washing is hugely important,” Jaykus said. “In fact, it’s the single most important thing for people attending Olympics,” she said.
The norovirus is extremely hard to kill, Jaykus warned. Inactivating the virus requires a high concentration of bleach. And while it’s easy enough to clean countertops and other similar surfaces with bleach, the same can’t be said for carpet and furniture. Alcohol isn’t strong enough to entirely kill the virus either, Jaykus added.
“The norovirus can be spread for weeks,” said Jaykus, who added that quarantining infected people can also be useful in preventing the spread of norovirus.
How did the norovirus spread at the Winter Olympics?
The short answer: no one is sure.
Health officials in South Korea said that a preliminary five-day survey of water for cooking and drinking has come up negative for norovirus. Restaurants and all food facilities linked to the Olympics will also be inspected.
“This is really scary for the athletes — if you have norovirus you really are incapacitated,” said Jaykus, though no athletes have reported having symptoms of the virus.