A nasty virus causing nausea, vomiting, diarrhea and stomach pain has flared up all over Maui, a state heath official said last week.
Symptoms of the stomach germ, or norovirus, have been seen at small elderly care homes and in the emergency room and in preschool- and early-elementary-school-aged children, said Dr. Lorrin Pang, Maui District health officer, who added that the state Health Department has been fielding public queries as well.
"This thing has flared up in the last month," Pang said. "It kind of peaks around the cooler months. This last month has been a lot more than last year or the year before."
Pang said that no cases have been reported on Molokai and Lanai, but on Maui there appears to be about twice as many cases and reported outbreaks this year than last year. His assessment is anecdotal because the Health Department doesn't have lab confirmation of suspected cases and sometimes symptoms of the virus are atypical, especially in children.
Reports of the norovirus have been coming in to the Health Department since mid-January from all over the island, with nurses reporting suspected cases in Kihei, Lahaina and Central Maui, said Pang.
"We've been getting a lot of phone calls from the public, saying 'I've been very sick,' '' he said.
Noroviruses are a group of viruses that cause gastroenteritis or stomach flu. The virus causes symptoms, including nausea, vomiting, diarrhea and stomach pain. Symptoms also may include low-grade fever, headache, fatigue and muscle aches.
Symptoms may begin from 12 to 48 hours after exposure. Symptoms typically last 24 to 60 hours.
In most cases, ill people recover without seeing a doctor, but the virus can result in hospitalization mainly due to the loss of fluids, Pang said.
Very young and older people are at greatest risk of getting sick. People with the disease with severe diarrhea should drink lots of liquids, he advised.
Winter is a common time for outbreaks of the norovirus and the flu virus because they thrive in cold and dry climates, Pang said. If the climate is warm and hot, bacteria will thrive and consume viruses and control their spread.
Although the norovirus may be found in cool and dry places and where people are in close contact with one another such as cruise ships, Pang said that he is not aware of outbreaks on ships locally.
There have been norovirus outbreaks elsewhere. George Washington University in Washington, D.C., saw about 85 students affected by the virus recently, according to news reports.
To prevent the spread of the norovirus, Pang said: "Hand washing, hand washing, hand washing."
Simply using plain soap and water will flush the virus off hands, he said.
Alcohol-based gel hand sanitizers may kill bacteria but do not kill the virus, especially if people just squirt the sanitizer on their hands and let them dry. Sanitizers may be more effective when used in addition to soap and water.
People may become infected with the norovirus by eating or drinking contaminated food or water or by touching objects or surfaces contaminated with the norovirus and then having contact with their mouth. The virus may be found in the stool or vomit of an infected person.
The virus may be spread when someone dry heaves making the virus airborne. So even though one may clean the floor or toilet bowl, the virus may be on walls and other surfaces.
Pang recommended a bleach solution for disinfecting walls, floors, toilets and other surfaces.
* Melissa Tanji can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.