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Virus Strikes Hotel

Highly contagiou snorovirus confirmed as more than 100 fall ill

Administrators of the Hilton Washington Dulles Airport hotel reopened the building Tuesday following a major sanitizing effort after an outbreak last week of the highly contagious vomiting disease, norovirus, affected more than 100 hotel guests and staff members.

The outbreak, which was first identified as norovirus by officials from the Fairfax County late on Jan. 16, is just one of more than 50 that have occurred throughout the state this winter. Norovirus is a highly contagious disease that affects the gastrointestinal tract and causes severe vomiting and diarrhea over the course of one to two days.

A spokesperson for the hotel, Jim Cree, declined to comment on the story only to confirm that the outbreak had occurred and that Hilton was undergoing a massive sanitation of every room in the hotel to prevent further spread of the disease.

A similar outbreak of the disease was reported at another area hotel, the Dulles Hyatt, in 2003, according to Hyatt staff.

WHILE NOROVIRUS is not normally lethal and typically subsides relatively quickly, those who have been infected must maintain normal fluid levels in the body. Dehydration, which may be deadly, occurs due to loss of liquid through vomiting and diarrhea, according to the Virginia Department of Health. This threat is compounded for individuals with weakened immune systems and those who are unable to drink enough fluids, such as senior citizens and children, according to a press release from the state health department released two days after the initial reports.

The virus is very common, particularly in Northern Virginia, the press release reads. There have been 23 million cases of norovirus infection in the country reported to U.S. Centers for Disease Control, according to government figures. The disease is most commonly seen in winter months.

DUE TO ITS highly-resistant structure and easy ability to infect a host, norovirus outbreaks can occur quickly and without warning in confined areas with many common spaces, said Dr. Allan Morrison, an infectious disease specialist with Inova Fairfax Hospital.

"Where there is the opportunity of lots of people touching a common surface, a front desk of a hotel, for instance, there is a much higher risk of transmission of the disease," Morrison said. "You'll have an index case, where the original infected person will get introduced the environment, and that spreads to the second wave of cases, and a third that will get infected from those."

"It can spread very quickly."

The disease was first recognized a little more than 30 years ago, and efforts at early identification of outbreaks have resulted in a much higher number of confirmed cases of norovirus in recent years, according to Morrison.

The incubation period, the time needed for symptoms to develop after initial infection, lasts about a half-day to two days, Morrison said. During that time, infected individuals can be contagious.

But the fact that norovirus, unlike other viruses, can survive in open air on surfaces for long periods of times — sometimes periods of days — makes outbreaks of the disease much more common, he added.

TO AVOID INFECTION, people who are congregating in highly-common areas such as hotels, offices and classrooms, with exposure to a large number of people on a regular basis, should be prepared to exercise good hygiene tactics, Morrison said.

"It's just like mom said, make sure you wash your hands after doing anything," he said. "There are no vaccines, there is no cure for something like this — the only way to prevent getting infected is through cleanliness."

This doesn't need to stop with only washing hands, Morrison said. Regularly disinfecting commonly-frequented surfaces with a chlorine-based cleaning solution will help to prevent the opportunity for an outbreak, he said.

For those who may have already been infected or exposed to the disease should not panic, Morrison added. If no symptoms occur in 48 hours, he or she is more than likely clear of coming down with the virus.

There are several strains of the norovirus, so developing long-term immunity to the disease after being infected is not likely, he said.

"If you're sick or think you may have been infected, stay home and away from potentially exposing other people to the disease," Morrison said. "The virus is not lethal, the incubation period is short, but it just needs to run it out of your body through its symptoms."