ATLANTA - Dr. Amy Kirby, Ph.D., is religious about hand washing. She and her colleagues at Emory's Rollins School of Public Health recently celebrated Global Handwashing Day. The reason why Kirby is such a believer is because she is an expert in the highly-contagious norovirus, which makes about 20 million Americans sick each year.
"Hand washing is really the first line of prevention to protect yourself," Kirby said. "It protects against a variety of diseases. It's easy. It's cheap."
It is also one of the few ways to stop norovirus, which causes nausea, vomiting and diarrhea. You can contract the virus by consuming contaminated food or water, or by touching a contaminated surface and then touching your mouth.
"Norovirus can last on surfaces easily for a month," Kirby said. "We've done studies in the lab that show that it can remain in water samples for several years."
There are hundreds of strains of norovirus. The CDC said another new strain emerges every 2-4 years. The GII.4 strain causes about 80% of cases in the U.S. But there is a new strain on the horizon. It is the GII.17 strain.
"This emerged in China last year and caused about 80% of the illness in China," Kirby said. "So, we're not sure this year if we'll see predominantly GII.4 or if GII.17 will come to the U.S."
To protect yourself, Kirby said wash your hands with soap and water. She said hand sanitizer is not effective against norovirus.
"Commonly missed surfaces are the backs of your hands, right here around the back of your thumb and your fingernails," Kirby said. "So, you want to make sure to get all of you hands and also all of your fingernails. And, under the fingernails."
Take your time, and when you are done, rinse well and dry your hands with a paper towel.
Kirby said the only "blessing" of norovirus is that it is very short. The most acute symptoms, the nausea, vomiting and diarrhea, typically last only 8-12 hours.
Kirby and her team at Emory are looking for international travelers for their new study. They want to know if "travelers' diarrhea" may be linked to norovirus. If it is, Kirby said there is a new vaccine in development that might be a good idea for people traveling to certain parts of the world.
If you are planning to travel in the near future and are interested, email Kirby at email@example.com