As reported by the Guardian, "At least 30 athletes and team members at the world athletics championships have been infected in a suspected outbreak of norovirus”, public health officials have said.

As a result a number of competitors were forced to withdraw from events including Isaac Makwala the Botswanan sprinter. The lost opportunity to compete for all the athletes affected must have been devastating. Makwala, who had the world's fastest time for the 200m going into the championships, became a focus for the decision.

Norovirus can be a potential issue wherever people congregate and outbreaks on ships, schools and in hospitals are not uncommon. A hotel in the French Alps resort of Val d'Isere also had a report of the "sickness bug" in February 2017. So what do you know about norovirus and how would you react to an outbreak in your building?

What is norovirus?

Norovirus, also known as "winter vomiting disease", is a highly infectious, viral, gastroenteritis. It is one of the most common stomach bugs in the UK and while most cases seem to occur during the winter months, it can cause illness at any time of the year

How can norovirus cause infection?

Norovirus is highly infectious and can be easily caught from particles such as vomit, faeces or food from an already infective person. Typically this is through:

  • Close contact with someone already infected;
  • Contact with contaminated objects or surfaces or;
  • Consuming contaminated food.

Norovirus particles can remain viable (able to survive and infect) on objects and surfaces outside the body for several days.

What are the symptoms?

A norovirus infection can be very unpleasant, but is rarely serious. Extra care should be taken with the very young a very old however, particularly with staying hydrated.

Symptoms include, vomiting, nausea and diarrhea, a slight fever, stomach cramps, aching limbs and headaches. These typically start 1 to 2 days after infection and can last a further 2 to 3 days.

While there is no cure for a norovirus infection, it is self-limiting (it will clear up by itself). People can also remain infectious - able to pass the disease on to others for up to 48 hours after their symptoms have stopped.

How do you stop the spread of a norovirus outbreak?

NHS Choices publishes the following information:

“It's not always possible to avoid getting norovirus, but following the advice below can help stop
the virus spreading.

  • Stay off work or school until at least 48 hours after the symptoms have passed. You should also avoid visiting anyone in hospital during this time.
  • Wash your hands frequently and thoroughly with soap and water, particularly after using the toilet and before preparing food. Don't rely on alcohol hand gels, as they do not kill the virus.
  • Disinfect any surfaces or objects that could be contaminated. It's best to use a bleach based household cleaner.
  • Wash any items of clothing or bedding that could have become contaminated separately on a hot wash to ensure the virus is killed.
  • Don't share towels and flannels.
  • Flush away any infected poo or vomit in the toilet and clean the surrounding area.
  • Avoid eating raw, unwashed produce and only eat oysters from a reliable source, as oysters can carry norovirus."

Should I have a plan in place in case of a norovirus outbreak at my premises?

Yes, as with any type of illness that could affect staff/pupil/visitor numbers quickly and significantly, you need to have considered your options and what you need to do in advance. Unlike some illnesses, a vaccination programme is of little use with norovirus. Have you considered a norovirus outbreak as part of your business continuity planning and what could be put in place to prevent the spread of the illness within your organisation?

For example:

  • Who will form the incident response/management team and who in the organisation will be responsible for delivering the plan?
  • How will you keep those that are ill away from the workplace - will you adopt a stay at home policy?
  • What will you do about maintaining or extending cleaning hygiene standards - additional or upgraded cleaning regimes?
    • What clean up procedures will you have in place for people who may become ill at work?
  • What will be your plan if providing hand sanitisers etc. for staff use, where will they be located, how will they be replenished etc.?
  • What information are you going to provide the organisation?
    • Intranet/noticeboard information (i.e. NHS Choices information)
    • Information to those ill about what they should do and when they can return to work.
    • Prompts in washrooms and kitchenettes re hand hygiene
    • Information to line managers on the actions being taken and their roles in the process.
  • What processes will be in place to track the extent of the outbreak and a decision on when
    it has ended?

Assurity Consulting are leading experts in workplace health, safety and environmental compliance. For more information on our services, and how we can help you, please contact us on tel. +44 (0)1403 269375 or email us.