Summer camp, chili cookoff among events that sickened 120 in Whatcom County this month

THE BELLINGHAM HERALDJuly 25, 2013 

A summer camp, a chili cookoff and a company event appear to be the source of recent clusters of illnesses believed to be caused by norovirus, according to the Whatcom County Health Department.

Officials are asking people to wash their hands and take precautions after about 120 people have reported symptoms this month consistent with norovirus, which causes about 24 hours of nausea, vomiting and diarrhea. Among the outbreaks:

• A local company function July 2 was the earliest reported cluster. Department spokesman Marcus Deyerin was unsure of the name of the company.

• Camp Firwood on Lake Whatcom was temporarily closed after 23 campers and staff were sickened with norovirus symptoms starting July 18. Health department officials said they will go back to Camp Firwood on Sunday, July 28, to make sure it's safe to reopen; campers could return Sunday afternoon.

• Last weekend, several people reported the illness after a chili cookoff on Lummi Island.

None of the clusters appear to have led to serious complications, which can arise when people become dehydrated from losing too much fluid.

According to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, food can become tainted with norovirus when people who have infectious feces or vomit on their hands touch the food or surfaces on which food is placed.

"Any time you have a gathering of people, if there's one person that has the virus, it's what we would call a target-rich environment," he said. "The person with the virus is able to expose a lot of other people."

With summer such a popular time for camps, barbecues and other social events, that means the virus has plenty of opportunities to spread.

Deyerin described the recent number of local clusters as a controlled outbreak, one that was notable because of the number of people affected. To limit the spread, he advised anyone with symptoms to stay home from work and social events. He also reminded people to wash their hands.

"Good hand-washing habits, that's the best prevention because that's how the majority of people are going to pick it up. They're going to touch something," he said. "Washing your hands with soap and hot water, you're going to eliminate the vast majority of the virus."

GOOD HYGIENE CRITICAL

Norovirus easily can be transmitted in food and water contaminated by individuals who are ill. County health officials recommend these precautions:

• Wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water. Hand sanitizers are often not effective against these viruses.

• Do not prepare food for others until you have not had any symptoms of illness for at least 48 hours.

• Thoroughly clean and disinfect the areas where people have vomited or the bathrooms that have been used by people who are ill.

• Stay home from work, childcare or other settings where there are lots of people. Vomit and diarrhea are very infectious and can come on unexpectedly, exposing others.

• Do not send ill individuals to camps, parties, swimming areas or other events.

• Do not visit the elderly, infants or people who have weak immune systems. Dehydration can be very serious for them.

• Encourage lots of fluids and rest. Most people recover in one or two days. If dehydration occurs or you are concerned about not being able to keep fluids down, contact your health care provider's office for advice.

For more information, go to cdc.gov/norovirus.

Reach Zoe Fraley at 360-756-2803 or zoe.fraley@bellinghamherald.com.

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