Last week, the renowned Homeland Security expert, Colonel Randall J. Larsen, USAF (Ret) made a stunningly bold claim that the most prevalent threat to humans today is infectious disease. In light of the current situation of an epidemic flu outbreak, the rampant spread of antibiotic-resistant gonorrhea, and the horrific fungal meningitis outbreak linked to tainted spinal injections, he had good reason to make the statement.
But nothing epitomizes his words more than a virus that presumably took down the Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, leaving her dehydrated and causing complications that left her injured and unable to work for a month. While the virus was never officially called by name, there is little doubt that the culprit was the villainous norovirus.
The noroviruses have likely been around for thousands of years, but their existence was only discovered in 1972 by Dr. Albert Kapikian while studying the infectious causes of a gastrointestinal outbreak in Norwalk, Ohio. Using an electron microscope, he found an incredible amount of small, round-structured creatures no more than a few dozen billionths of a metre in diametre. He was fascinated not only because he had found a new type of virus, but because the culprit caused one of the most egregious attack on the human condition.
The infection is short, lasting only 48 to 72 hours but during that time, one might believe they have been put into one of Ridley Scott's Alien movies. Within the first six hours after infection, abdominal cramps appear as the virus is finds a home in the gut. But this unease is just the beginning; the real terror starts when the virus production reaches a critical mass and literally rips off the gut lining. An incredible surge of water, dead cells and virus heads down the intestines causing a rush of diarrhea that cannot be stopped.
But that's not all. As the posterior push occurs, a message is sent through the vagus nerve to the brain that the body needs to purge whatever might have happened to cause the illness. The result is incredible projectile vomiting that would make Linda Blair squirm.
Not surprisingly, many tend to find shelter in their beds -- or bathtubs -- during the onslaught. But in hundreds of thousands of cases each year, the combined loss of fluids and the lack of any ability to replenish what has been lost leaves victims severely dehydrated and in need of medical help. It's not considered to be a life threatening condition yet worldwide, some 2.2 million people succumb to the complications of infection. While there are some experimental treatments in development, there are no effective solutions other than fluids and time.
BLOG CONTINUES AFTER SLIDESHOW
"Research has found no evidence that vitamin C prevents colds," says Dr Hasmukh Joshi, vice-chair of the Royal College of GPs. In 2007, the authors of a review of 30 trials involving 11,000 people concluded that, "regular ingestion of vitamin C has no effect on common cold incidence in the ordinary population". A daily dose of vitamin C did slightly reduce the length and severity of colds. When it comes to flu, one person in three believes that taking vitamin C can cure the flu virus. It can't. "Studies found that vitamin C offers a very, very limited benefit," says Dr Joshi. "I wouldn't recommend it." Information from NHS Choices.
The root, seeds and other parts of echinacea plants are used in herbal remedies that many people believe protect them against colds. There have been a number of studies into echinacea's effect, but no firm conclusions. A review of trials involving echinacea showed that, compared with people who didn't take echinacea, those who did were about 30% less likely to get a cold. However, the studies had varying results and used different preparations of echinacea. It's not known how these compare with the echinacea in shops. This review also showed that echinacea did not reduce the length of a cold when taken on its own. "There is a belief that echinacea aids the immune system, but a survey of studies in 2005 showed that it did not," says Dr Joshi. "I wouldn't recommend that it helps, but if people believe it, they can take it. There's no harm in it." Information from NHS Choices.
There is some evidence that taking zinc lozenges as soon as cold symptoms appear may reduce how long a cold lasts. However, some trials have found no difference in the duration of colds in people who took zinc compared with those who did not. There has also been research into nasal sprays containing zinc. "Some people believe that the zinc lines the mucosa [the lining of the nose] and stops a cold virus attaching itself to the nose lining," says Dr Joshi. "Unfortunately, this has been found to be no more effective than a placebo." Information from NHS Choices.
The only thing that can cause a cold or flu is a cold or flu virus. Getting cold and/or wet won't give you a cold. However, if you are already carrying the virus in your nose, it might allow symptoms to develop. A study at the Common Cold Centre in Cardiff found that people who chilled their feet in cold water for 20 minutes were twice as likely to develop a cold as those who didn't chill their feet. The authors suggest that this is because some people carry cold viruses without having symptoms. Getting chilled causes blood vessels in the nose to constrict, affecting the defences in the nose and making it easier for the virus to replicate. "Getting a cold from going out in the cold or after washing your hair is a myth," says Dr Joshi. "Colds are common. If the virus is already there and then you go out with wet hair and develop symptoms, it's common to think that is what caused it." Information from NHS Choices.
The flu vaccine can prevent you from catching flu. Apart from that, the best way to protect yourself from colds and flu is to have a healthy lifestyle. "Eat a healthy diet, take regular exercise and drink plenty of warm drinks in the winter months," says Dr Joshi. "The important thing to remember is that most people are going to catch a cold in winter anyway, because there is no effective cure for cold viruses." Information from NHS Choices.
Back in 1972, the norovirus experience was rare but over the last four decades, the rise of cases has been dramatic. By the turn of the millennium, it was one of the most common causes of viral gastroenteritis. Outbreaks are now featured almost weekly in the news and it seems anywhere people gather; there is the chance for infection. In the last month alone, noroviruses have led to dozens to hundreds of illnesses on cruise ships, hospitals, restaurants, and schools.
As these stories imply, the viruses are hiding everywhere and turn up in the most unlikely places including the furthest regions of Eastern Russia, the Amazonian regions of Brazil, and even the world of Disney. Compared to any other agent or action that falls under the classic definition of terror, the noroviruses are by far a leader.
But there are thankfully a few ways to thwart this perfect villain. To keep foods safe, the best route is high heat, which is a natural consequence of cooking. On surfaces, the use of norovirus-killing disinfectants, such as bleach and hydrogen peroxide is always recommended. And if contamination is expected on items such as bags or clothes, wash them with hot water. Then there is the most important means to prevent infection: keep the virus outside of the body. Achieving this is fairly simply although the solution is often ignored.
Washing hands with soap for 20 seconds followed by rinsing and drying will keep hands safe. In addition, the use of a hand sanitizer with alcohol for at least 20 seconds may also help to kill the virus. This is especially important for foodhandlers who are a major cause of norovirus outbreaks. If every person who worked with food throughout its continuum maintained proper hand hygiene, a significant percentage of the cases would simply not occur. Unfortunately, the message continues to be unheard and the cases continue to rise.
Thanks to Col. Larsen, there may be a new approach to help keep norovirus at bay. In view of the extent and the impact of norovirus infections, it may be well time to change the message from one of encouragement to one of consequence to our personal and even public security. I suggest we start with a paraphrased version of a very well-known saying from the previous decade: "Wash your hands or the noroviruses win."
I'm sure Hillary Clinton would approve.
Follow Jason Tetro on Twitter: www.twitter.com/JATetro