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How to keep a virus at bay

A 48-hour, Norwalk-like virus is moving through the campus

There is, it seems, something other than spring in the air at Boston University. Student Health Services reports that a virus with symptoms resembling those of the Norwalk virus has been making its way through the student population. Massachusetts Department of Public Health tests of the virus indicate that it is not the Norwalk virus, but officials warn that it could be a close relative.

The Norwalk virus, formally known as Norovirus, is one of the most common gastrointestinal viruses affecting humans, and while its symptoms — nausea, diarrhea, vomiting, or abdominal cramps — are extremely unpleasant, it can often be prevented, health officials say, by regular hand-washing with soap and warm water.

“If you consider that everything you touch,” says Denise Buckley, nursing director at the Student Health Services Infirmary, “doorknobs, utensils at self-serve restaurants, etc., has been touched by multiple people before you, it’s easy to see how these things spread. I know the advice sounds childish, but everyone needs to make sure to wash their hands after using the restroom.”

There is no specific treatment for the virus, Buckley says, but the most effective way to recover quickly is sleep. She recommends that anyone with symptoms stay home and rest.

Buckley also advises avoiding drinking large amounts of water. Although it’s a typical response to the dehydration often caused by the virus, drinking too much too quickly, she says, will often cause vomiting to continue. Rather, dehydrated people should take frequent sips of water or a sports drink, she says, and if symptoms persist, should visit their health-care provider. Symptoms usually appear within 24 to 48 hours of exposure, and typically last for one to three days.

David Zamojski, director of the Office of Residence Life, says there have been dozens of cases of the Norwalk-like virus reported by students in the dorms and that resident assistants are referring students to the Student Health Services Web site for tips on prevention and staying healthy. School officials are advising students who use the residence halls’ communal bathrooms to pay particularly close attention to preventive actions.
The University’s Dining Services is taking several measures to reduce the likelihood of the virus spreading via food or drink. An extra effort is being made to sanitize all food contact surfaces, wash fruits and vegetables, check food temperatures, make sure that all employees’ hands are clean, and keep any infected employees out of the workplace. Where possible, unsupervised self-service food stations have been shut down, and alcohol-based hand sanitizers will soon be installed at dining hall entrances.

“Your health and the health of your fellow students is the most important,” says BU spokesman Colin Riley. He urges those infected to stay in their rooms and minimize contact with other students.

 The Department of Public Health explains that this and other viruses can be prevented by taking simple hygiene steps and precautions, such as frequent hand-washing, cooking food completely, cleaning contaminated surfaces after episodes of diarrhea or vomiting, and if taking care of someone with these symptoms, washing your hands thoroughly after cleaning the bathroom, helping the person use the toilet, or changing soiled clothes or bedding.