Public health officials are urging good hand-washing this holiday season as the number of norovirus outbreaks in Minnesota surges.
Holiday gatherings often play a role in fueling the spread of the gastrointestinal infection because it is highly contagious and can be transmitted through contaminated food.
"It's not that pleasant to think about, but the norovirus basically comes out of people in either stool or vomit and then is subsequently transmitted to food through hands or contaminated environmental surfaces," says Dr. Kirk Smith, the foodborne disease supervisor at the Minnesota Department of Health. He says people who are ill or were recently ill shouldn't prepare food for others.
"This thing goes from person to person to person until boom it gets into a food handler that then gets a bunch of people sick at once," Smith says. "That can be in a commercial food establishment or it can just be at home or a holiday gathering at a relative's house, or anything like that."
Minnesota has seen an uptick in norovirus outbreaks since November. Of the nearly 90 confirmed outbreaks in 2012, about one third have occurred in the past seven weeks.
Noroviruses are the leading cause of foodborne illness outbreaks in the state, infecting thousands of people each year.