Applied math reveals the key to stopping norovirus lies—literally—in our own hands

March 6, 2018, Arizona State University
Norovirus. Credit: CDC

From stately cruise ships to Olympic host cities, recent headline-grabbing outbreaks prove that norovirus—an incapacitating stomach bug which causes vomiting and diarrhea and has no vaccine—can strike anywhere, anytime.

Yet it often does its nastiest work on the road, in public avenues where travel and close quarters mix with limited awareness and ability to control the spread. So how can you avoid letting turn your next dream trip into a nightmare?

According to an upcoming study in Royal Society Open Science, the most effective method is also the simplest: washing your hands.

Modelling virus spread

Arizona State University applied mathematicians used data from a major norovirus outbreak on a cruise ship to create a new math model of how norovirus spreads.

"Our model indicates that person-to-person contact is the primary mode of transmission," says Sherry Towers, the study's lead author and professor at the Simon A. Levin Mathematical, Computational and Modeling Sciences Center, an affiliated research center of the School for Human Evolution and Social Change.

This explains why densely populated environments with large common areas like cruise ships, resorts and Olympic villages are the perfect settings for wide-scale outbreaks. But knowing that personal contact is the main way the disease spreads also provides a solution.

How to keep yourself safe

Because aggressive steps like self-quarantine and avoiding the sick often happen too late—or not at all—in these environments, the team's next step was to compare the effectiveness of different preventative measures, such as hand washing and surface cleaning, in halting the spread.

"It only takes a few virus particles to make you sick, so no matter how stringent the cleaning, it is next to impossible to remove all the virus from contaminated surfaces," Towers says. "However, since the primary route for infection is hand-to-mouth contact, you can't be infected if you wash your hands thoroughly before eating or touching your face."

To keep yourself safe from—and prevent—norovirus outbreaks, Towers recommends you scrub up for at least 20 seconds with soap and warm water before eating food, as well as after using the restroom or touching a potentially contaminated surface.

"When your mother told you to always wash your hands before coming to the dinner table," says Towers, "she was right."

This research builds on other studies from the center and school that explore the causes of, and potential policy solutions for, viral disease exposure in mass transportation. Similar innovative math models are also being successfully developed and applied to study "transmittable" social behaviors and trends.

Explore further: What is norovirus? Stomach bug hits Winter Games

More information: Quantifying the relative effects of environmental and direct transmission of norovirus, Royal Society Open Science, rsos.royalsocietypublishing.or … /10.1098/rsos.170602

Related Stories

What is norovirus? Stomach bug hits Winter Games

February 7, 2018
Norovirus, also known as the winter vomiting bug, has officials at the Pyeongchang Games scrambling to stop its spread. The bug apparently began spreading when private security workers at the games came down with headaches, ...

Norovirus at Olympics has officials scrambling, worried

February 7, 2018
Signs posted around the Olympic venues urge extreme caution. Nine hundred troops stream into the area to help. Worried organizers sequester 1,200 people in their rooms.

Food handlers cause most food-poisoning cases

June 3, 2014
(HealthDay)—Norovirus, the so-called "cruise ship virus," is more often caused by infected restaurant workers than outbreaks on the high seas, U.S. health officials said Tuesday.

CDC: Norovirus caused cruise ship outbreak

January 31, 2014
Federal health investigators say lab tests have confirmed that norovirus was to blame for an outbreak on a cruise ship that sickened nearly 700.

Asymptomatic infection helps norovirus to spread in Indonesia

November 6, 2017
Norovirus, also referred to as the "winter vomiting bug", is the most common cause of acute gastroenteritis in humans. A Japanese research team has shown that norovirus is significantly present in the stools of healthy volunteers ...

Recommended for you

Global burden of low back pain—a consequence of negligence and misinformation

March 21, 2018
A series of groundbreaking papers from Australian and international researchers in The Lancet, published today (22/3) warns that low back pain is a major health burden globally - across developed and developing nations - ...

Microscopic 'shuttles' transport enzyme from cells to trigger onset of kidney disease

March 21, 2018
A new study involving the University of Sheffield has identified a key culprit in the onset of kidney disease in a major marker for kidney disease development.

Metabolite therapy proves effective in treating C. difficile in mice

March 20, 2018
A team of UCLA researchers found that a metabolite therapy was effective in mice for treating a serious infection of the colon known as Clostridium difficile infection, or C. difficile.

Sick air travelers mostly likely to infect next row: study

March 19, 2018
People who fly on airplanes while contagious can indeed get other people sick, but the risk is mainly to those seated next to them or in the adjacent row, US researchers said Monday.

Study of COPD patients has created a 'looking glass' into genome of pathogen

March 19, 2018
Decades of work on chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) at the University at Buffalo and the Veterans Affairs Western New York Healthcare System have yielded extraordinary information about the pathogen that does ...

Newly described human antibody prevents malaria in mice

March 19, 2018
Scientists have discovered a human antibody that protected mice from infection with the deadliest malaria parasite, Plasmodium falciparum. The research findings provide the basis for future testing in humans to determine ...


Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.