Fun in the Sun With a Side of Infection?

Jul 5, 2012 | Catherine Stecyk | Outbreak News

The warm summer months bring to mind overnight camps; days spent poolside, on the beach, and with friends. What they don’t bring to mind, but bring to the table nonetheless, is a variety of season-specific health risks.

Among these risks are norovirus and waterborne illnesses and infections.

Several gastroenteritis outbreaks have occurred across the United States in recent weeks: at a cheerleading camp in Michigan, a sports camps in South Bend, Indiana, and a camp at George Mason University in Virginia. In Michigan and Indiana, the cause of gastroenteritis (which is the inflammation of the large and small intestines and may result in vomiting or diarrhea) was determined to be a norovirus. The Farfaix County Health Department has not yet determined the cause of illness at George Mason University. Norovirus, the most common cause of gastroenteritis in the United States, is a virus that causes inflammation, nausea, vomiting and diarrhea. It is extremely contagious and can be transmitted by touching an infected person, touching a surface an infected person has touched, or ingesting contaminated food or water. Because it is so easy to transmit, it causes significant damage in crowded populations.

Though it is contagious, norovirus infection can easily be prevented by frequently washing hands with soap and water. CDC recommends washing hands thoroughly after using the toilet and prior to eating or preparing food. There is no specific treatment for norovirus; the CDC advises those infected to drink plenty of fluids to avoid dehydration and reminds people that norovirus is a virus, and therefore cannot be treated with antibiotics.

Beaches, as enticing as they may be during weeks of sweltering heat, also pose certain health risks. The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) recently released its annual analysis of water quality and public notification data, which serves as a guide for water quality at U.S. vacation beaches. The report stated that the number of days of beach closures in 2011 was the third highest amount in the history of the report (which is twenty-two years old). The majority of closures were caused by increased bacteria levels, most likely from human or animal waste. A major cause for increased bacteria levels is storm water run-off. The NRDC advocates for green city infrastructure to “stop rain water where it falls,” so it won’t pollute the beaches.

Diseases associated with polluted water include gastroenteritis, skin rashes, pinkeye, and respiratory infections. The CDC reports an increase in water borne illnesses from recreational water use between the years of 2006 and 2008, and recommends increasing public health awareness activities and surveillance measures.  

Preventing the spread of waterborne disease is possible through a number of methods, such as showering before and after swimming, not swimming on closed beaches, not using beaches or pools if afflicted with diarrhea or other gastrointestinal distress, and practicing good hygiene. It is also important to keep up-to-date with local beach and pool closures, which you can do at the Environmental Protection Agency’s Beach Monitoring and Notification site.

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