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Norovirus: The Biggest Foe at the Winter Olympics

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Athletes train for years to get the opportunity to compete in the Olympics.  PyeongChang has been preparing for the Winter Games since winning the bid in 2011 – building new hotels, a high-speed rail, and more athletic venues to be ready for the estimated 80,000 Olympic tourists.  But what was the Winter Olympics not prepared for?  Norovirus.

This highly contagious pathogen has resulted in 283 confirmed cases of Norovirus so far, with 49 people still in quarantine at the Olympic village (as of February 19).  Norovirus began wreaking havoc before the games officially even began, causing 1200 guards to be placed in quarantine and requiring 900 soldiers to replace them.  While the virus has primarily affected staff members for the games, it also infected two Swiss athletes. 

It’s not uncommon for infectious diseases like this to spread at similar athletic events.  Last year’s World Athletics Championship in London also faced a Norovirus outbreak – sidelining several athletes during the events.  At the 2014 Winter Olympics, 249 persons were impacted by infectious disease outbreaks, and 185 cases were reported at the 2010 Vancouver games.

Olympic spokesperson Christophe Dubi stated that “very stringent measures are in place when it comes to food and beverages” because the initial outbreak was traced back to contaminated water used to prepare food.   "We're making sure that water quality is being monitored... and also hygiene is being monitored," said Sung Baik You, spokesman for the Game’s organizing committee.

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Once Norovirus is contracted, though, it can easily spread via person-to-person contact, as well as from contact with contaminated surfaces.  As a result, attendees of the games have been encouraged to keep up with good handwashing hygiene.  However, when Norovirus struck the father of a U.S. hockey player James Wisniewski, a new post-game offer of respect was instituted by the players substituting a fist bump instead of the usual hand shake.  Suspending this time-honored sportsmanship tradition is a clear indication of a growing appreciation of the risks with these infectious germs, and the desire of the staff and athletes to do anything they can to minimize spreading this illness.

Effective Surface Disinfection

While good hygiene and monitoring your proximity to others is important, often less attention is paid to the proper disinfection of surfaces.  According to the CDC, Norovirus can survive on select surfaces for days or even weeks.  In addition, people can be contagious for up to 14 days after their symptoms end, so disinfection isn’t a one step process, but rather, a continuous battle. 

While a spokesperson for the games has indicated that areas are being disinfected after a new case is reported, this can be a challenging task to accomplish and is very reactionary to problems once they are found instead of proactively protecting the surfaces in advance.  Norovirus is resistant to many disinfectants and can withstand temperatures up to 60°C (140°F), making it very difficult to effectively kill with traditional disinfecting solutions. 

According to the Cleveland Clinic, it is recommended that you use bleach and water, as many disinfectants won’t kill Norovirus.  Furthermore, it is recommended that you clean everything you touch, and let the bleach water or disinfectant cleaner stay on the surface for 10 minutes.  These recommendations pose several challenges – from surfaces that you cannot use bleach on to trying to ensure surfaces remain wet for the required contact time; not to mention the health risks that some chemicals can pose to humans.   

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A person only has to be exposed to about 100 particles of Norovirus to become ill, so if you miss any areas while you are disinfecting, people can still be at significant risk for contracting the illness. 

Opportunity to Better Plan for Outbreak Prevention

A lot of time and money are usually spent ahead of major sporting events planning the food, entertainment, lodging, and transportation.  Moreover, a great deal of attention is paid to helping keep athletes in prime condition, but maybe they are missing a major opportunity when planning for events like this?  How can they minimize the risk of outbreaks like Norovirus occurring?

Ultraviolet light has been proven to effectively kill bacteria and viruses.  Violet Defense has created a way to bring this technology to everyday spaces – with cost-effective mobile or even autonomous built-in options. This enables us to bring the disinfecting power of ultraviolet light to hotels, athletic facilities, and other places where people will be near one another, and adds a layer of protection to help minimize the risk of illnesses like Norovirus from spreading.  With clinical validation that its line of S.A.G.E. (Surface & Air Germ Elimination) products can kill up to 99.9% of bacteria and viruses, including Norovirus, it should be a key disinfection component for upcoming sporting events to protect both athletes and spectators alike.  Maybe the headline at the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo should read “Olympic Participants Can Keep their Focus on the Games with New Technology Focused on Preventing the Spread of Norovirus.”

Contact us to find out more about how UV can be another tool in the fight against Norovirus.

Jessica Jones