Contagious Norovirus has spread to the Olympic Village

Feb 07, 2018 | Derrick Flakoll

A norovirus outbreak has struck PyeongChang, South Korea two days before the opening ceremonies of the 2018 Winter Olympics are due to begin. 41 private guards hired to secure the games were hospitalized with severe diarrhea and vomiting late on Sunday. As of February 6th, 2018, 1,200 private security personnel at the Olympic site are being quarantined and tested for the virus. 900 South Korean soldiers have taken their place to protect 20 sites linked to the games.

In response, the PyeongChang Olympic Organizing Committee vowed to disinfect all Olympic buses and accommodations to prevent the virus from spreading. The source of the outbreak is still unknown, but authorities are testing food and water at the guards’ quarters and groundwater at 18 nearby facilities to isolate the origin of the infection.

A man sanitizes his hands at the entrance to the media cafeteria in Gangneung, South Korea, Wednesday, Feb. 7, 2018. (Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press via AP)

Norovirus Transmission and Symptoms

Norovirus is a highly contagious disease that causes severe diarrhea, nausea, vomiting, aches, stomach pain, and potentially dehydration. It spreads through ingestion of contaminated food or water, or through contact with infected objects and surfaces. Symptoms typically develop 12 to 48 hours after exposure and dissipate within 72 hours, but can last longer. Infected individuals can spread norovirus for over two weeks after recovery.

Implications and Suggested Response

Patients typically recover quickly from norovirus symptoms. If the source of the outbreak is quickly identified and cleansed, the Olympics should continue with minimal disruption. Groundwater contamination may present a more difficult challenge to resolve, but switching to bottled water sources and boiling potentially affected water should help contain the outbreak.

Most people can recover from norovirus without treatment, but infants, the elderly, and people with underlying medical conditions may require hospitalization after infection. Medical facilities near the PyeongChang Olympic site are limited; the nearest hospital is 25 miles away. While clinics and tents at the Olympic site may be sufficient for most cases, travelers should prepare contingency plans for hospital access and medical translation in case of severe symptoms.

There is no specific treatment for norovirus. Symptom management should be the main clinical focus until the infection runs its course. Anti-emetic medications and oral rehydration fluids can mitigate the worst effects of the disease.

The most critical tool for managing norovirus outbreaks is prevention – particularly since previous infections do not confer immunity, allowing the virus to sicken anyone. The sick should minimize contact with others and carefully maintain their personal hygiene. Travelers should scrupulously wash their hands with soap and water, thoroughly clean and dry their clothes, and disinfect potentially contaminated surfaces with 5.25% bleach solution. Additionally, intensively cooking and cleaning food is essential to preventing infections. Norovirus can be found in any food but is most frequently associated with raspberries and shellfish. Travelers should note that norovirus is quite hardy and can survive at up to 140 degrees Fahrenheit, so food should be thoroughly cooked to eliminate the virus.