While the United States has been suffering through a nasty flu epidemic, many of us may have missed what's happening around the world. For instance, according to reports in The Guardian, a leading British newspaper, Britain has had one of the worst outbreaks of norovirus in years with 1.1 million people having contracted the disease. Sometimes called the "stomach flu," this is a new strain of the virus, which has also been reported in France, New Zealand, Australia, and Japan.
This new strain was first detected in Australia in March 2012. And from September 2012 to December 2012, it was the leading cause of outbreaks of the disease in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
The CDC also reports that about 21 million peopled come down with the illness each year, 70,000 are hospitalized, and about 800 die. Because it impacts so many people and—even more important—because effective, hygienic cleaning can slow if not eliminate the transfer of the virus from one person to another, it is worth our while to understand a little more about this disease, how it affects humans, and what the cleaning industry can do about it.
Norovirus is found in the vomit and stools of infected people. It can transfer to anything they touch if they have not properly washed their hands with warm water and soap. And once it spreads to a new host—that's us—it can come on with a vengeance. Within a day or so, noroviruses essentially rewire the digestive system, triggering fairly serious bouts of diarrhea. It is estimated that each gram of feces from an infected person contains around five billion noroviruses.
It also induces vomit. In fact, some public health officials report the virus slows down the digestive system, allowing food to build up in the stomach. Then, using nerves as if they were telephone wires, the virus sends signals to the stomach, causing it to contract. When this happens, sometimes-violent vomiting occurs, weakening the infected person, spreading the virus to other surfaces, and causing more people to get sick.
This spreading to surfaces is especially problematic with norovirus because it can survive on surfaces for a surprisingly long time. Droplets of the virus have been found to survive both freezing and high temperatures as well as the application of many chemical disinfectants. The disease has a tendency to peak in January, mainly, it is believed, because more people are inside and in close quarters during the winter. However, it is those close quarters that make the disease a serious problem any time of the year on ships, airplanes, and even in hospitals, where it can spread as a hospital-acquired illness.
One of the few good things to say about norovirus, at least when compared to many other viruses, is that while it begins suddenly, it often lasts only one to three days. Further, most people can recover without special treatments or hospitalization. However, those one to three days can be pretty darn nasty.
What to Do About It
There are steps we all can take to stop the spread of norovirus. First, as we said, proper hand washing—not just with hand sanitizers—is one of the most effective ways to reduce contamination. If there are concerns about norovirus in a facility, building users should thoroughly wash their hands and use hand sanitizers. View sanitizers as only an extra precautionary step.
No available drugs specifically treat norovirus. A vaccine is being tested that shows limited promise and has not been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. That leaves just a few options, but these options can play an pivotal role, and this is where our industry can get involved.
Cleaning professionals are advised to take their own precautions such as always wearing gloves when working. The CDC also suggests, especially in very serious outbreaks, cleaning with chlorine bleach on nonporous surfaces using a relatively high concentration: 5 to 25 tablespoons to a gallon of water. High-touch surfaces such as doorknobs should also be cleaned with bleach.
However, because bleach can be harmful to the user and the environment, and because conventional cleaning tools such as mops, buckets, and cleaning cloths may actually spread the disease as they themselves become contaminated, cleaning professionals should consider other options such as spray-and-vac, or spray-and-squeegee systems to help prevent and possibly eliminate the spread of the virus. According to scientific studies using ATP-monitoring technology* these systems remove more contaminants and disease-causing germs and bacteria on surfaces than the conventional cleaning tools mentioned.
Norovirus is extremely contagious. A new strain seems to show up every two or three years, and we are experiencing an especially robust strain this year. Cleaning professionals can play an important role in mitigating this problem. If they are cleaning a facility where people have contracted the disease, they can help protect themselves and all building users by taking the steps mentioned here.
By Robert Kravitz is a frequent writer for the professional cleaning industry.
*ATP stands for adenosine triphosphate. ATP rapid-monitoring systems can quickly indicate the presence of organic matter that may host harmful microorganisms on a variety of surfaces.
Sources: USA Today, Jan. 24, 2013; United Press International, Feb. 11, 2013; Carl Zimmer, "The Norovirus: A Study in Puked Perfection," National Geographic, January 2013.
Robert Kravitz is a former building service contractor, having owned, operated, and then sold three contract cleaning companies in Northern California.
He is the author of two books about the industry and continues to be a frequent writer for the industry.
Robert is now president of AlturaSolutions Communications, which provides communications and marketing services for organizations in the professional cleaning and building industries.