Some call it stomach flu, or even food poisoning, but in a new CDC report released Tuesday, we're learning that the No. 1 cause of foodborne illness in the U.S. is Norovirus, the virus most often associated with cruise ships.
Overall, Norovirus affects 20 million people, or one out of every 15 Americans each year. Foodborne spread is responsible for about a quarter of these cases, and it mainly happens in restaurants.
The new CDC report tracked 4,318 norovirus outbreaks between 2009 and 2012, which resulted in 161,253 illnesses and 304 deaths.
Nearly a quarter of those infections were spread through food, and most of the time, the spreading happened in a food preparation setting like restaurants (64 percent of the time), and banquet halls (17 percent of the time).
The tracking system researchers used is called NORS: National Outbreak Reporting System. It includes information from local and state health departments, but does not include cruise ships.
The combined data revealed the foodborne illness mainly spread because of service workers who handled or prepared "ready to eat food" with their bare hands. Foods like washed, raw fruits and vegetables for salads, sandwiches, and baked goods were among those passing through their hands.
In a prior study, as many as one in five workers admitted to working while ill with symptoms of vomiting or diarrhea- the most common symptoms of Norovirus. Those workers said they feared they would lose their jobs, or leave their co-workers short-staffed if they chose not to work.
Compounding the problem, other studies have shown that more than three-fourths of food service workers do not wash their hands properly.
Infections can then be spread for weeks since Norovirus can live on utensils and countertops for up to two weeks, and has a strong resistance.
Norovirus Resistance Facts:
People with norovirus infections shed billions of virus particles when sick, and it only takes about 18 to infect someone else. The CDC says the amount of virus particles that fit on the head of a pin would be enough to infect more than 1,000 people.
Since an effective treatment for the virus does not exist, the CDC asks restaurants to help curtail the spread by doing the following:
The report points out that 74 percent of reported Norovirus cases are spread in ways unrelated to food:
Those outbreaks occurred mostly in long-term care facilities, like nursing homes.
With that being said, the CDC notes the number of cases of Norovirus is likely much higher since many cases go unreported. That makes safeguards at home more important.
They give these tips to follow at home:
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