DUBAI// Health experts are seeking to raise awareness about noroviruses, a set of highly infectious microorganisms that has closed parts of hospitals in the US and UK in recent months.
The hard-to-kill virus causes 23 million cases of stomach flu each year in the US.
It is the most common cause of stomach illnesses globally, according to Dr Lee-Ann Jaykus, the president of the US-based International Association for Food Protection.
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In the UAE, however, there is no comprehensive data on the virus, which spreads from person to person through contaminated food or water. UAE doctors say that while food-borne illnesses are common, most of the cases they treat are caused by bacteria or parasites.
Noroviruses have no treatment, and last only around two to three days. However, they are far more contagious than other microorganisms.
"Even one single [noro]virus can cause a problem," said Dr Talal Farha, a specialist paediatrician at Dubai's City Hospital. "Every other virus needs a lot more."
In healthy people, the virus is relatively harmless. But if young people, elderly people or those with diabetes, heart disease or kidney problems contract the virus, it can be very problematic, said Richard Stangier, a consultant on internal medicine for the German Medical Center in Abu Dhabi.
Also, in densely populated places, such as schools and hospitals, the highly infectious virus poses serious health risk.
"If it hits one person all of a sudden, all the staff and patients become ill as well," said Dr Farha.
Typically, once the virus is identified, the hospital will close off the ward where it has been found.
The virus can be spread from eating contaminated food or liquids. Touching surfaces or objects that are contaminated, or having direct contact with someone who has been exposed, can lead to infection.
Additionally, because secretions contain a high viral count, the virus can become airborne if a person vomits.
"If a person is near to where it occurred, they can get infected without touching it after the virus gets into airways," Dr Farha said.
Food items that are handled manually, such as berries or green onions, also tend to have higher contamination rates, as do ready-to-eat supermarket and deli foods that are not heated before eating.
"Sandwiches, salads and deli goods are probably responsible for the vast majority of foodbourne norovirus outbeaks," said Dr Jaykus.
According to the acting head of the food studies and survey department of the Dubai Municipality, the culture of food handlers who work while ill needs to change.
"We wish to increase the attitudes, because giving leave for employees with the flu is not common," Asia Al Raeesi said last month at the Dubai International Food Safety Conference.
The UAE has witnessed a series of high-profile food poisoning cases in recent months. A recent Abu Dhabi court ruling cleared workers at the Al Fanar restaurant in Abu Dhabi's Le Royal Meridian Hotel in the death of a manwho became ill after eating there on May 7 last year. In Dubai, two food workers were fined last month over the deaths of two children from food poisoning.