Nursing Homes Plagued by Mystery Sapovirus

Nursing homes, long suffering from outbreaks of norovirus, are being plagued by the equally virulent, lesser-known sapovirus.

Once rare, said MSNBC, sapovirus is gaining ubiquity, very specifically in nursing home facilities and long-term care centers, according to heath researchers in Oregon and Minnesota. “It’s an up-and-coming bug,” Lore Elizabeth Lee, an Oregon public health epidemiologist and author of a new study on sapovirus in the journal, Emerging Infectious Diseases, told MSNBC.

A review of 2,161 gastrointestinal outbreaks in both states revealed that while half were due to norovirus and nearly one-quarter due to bacteria, parasites, and other causes, about one-quarter of the nonnorovirus outbreaks were actually sapovirus, said MSNBC. Of 142 nonnorovirus outbreaks, 93 were tested said Lee; 25% were sapovirus. “It means we have another virus circulating that we need to study,” she noted.

About 20 million people suffer from acute norovirus infections in the United States every year, according to health officials. Norovirus can lead to violent diarrhea and vomiting, fever, lethargy, and stomach pain and can very easily and very quickly travel through food, people, and surfaces, explained MSNBC. Sapovirus appears to cause the same physical reactions and spreads in much the same way, said MSNBC.

Lee and her colleagues identified 21 sapovirus outbreaks in their states and revealed that 66% took place in long-term care centers; 10% in schools; and the remainder in a prison, a large psychiatric hospital, a restaurant, and a cruise ship, wrote MSNBC. Once seen rarely and in children, sapovirus is “probably circulating in a lot of other settings as well,” Lee told MSNBC.

Norovirus and sapovirus are separate pathogens in the Caliciviridae virus family. Sapovirus was first discovered in 1977 at a home for infants in Sapporo, Japan. The virus was, for the most part, quiet, until 2002, when scientists created a new test for sapovirus and found it turning up in a number of locations, said MSNBC. “The reason we’re seeing it now is we’re actively testing for it,” Lee said.

As with most other food borne pathogens, in children, the elderly, or those with weakened immune systems, sapovirus can lead to hospitalization or death. Minnesota is now testing for sapovirus; Oregon is scheduled to begin soon, said Lee, according to MSNBC. Lee hopes other states will follow. The same preventative steps taken with norovirus should be used for sapovirus, such as “good hand hygiene, careful food preparation, and scrupulous attention to environmental cleanliness” said MSNBC. “Bleach,” said Lee. “Strong bleach.”

Both viruses, which can survive for weeks on surfaces at room temperature, can be difficult to eliminate, and can only be killed with chorine bleach. Alcohol-based hand sanitizers and other preparations are not too helpful. People are generally considered to be contagious from when they feel ill to about three days after their symptoms subside; however, the virus can still be active in their vomit or stool for two weeks or more. No vaccine exists to prevent or treat either infection.

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