Reusable plastic shopping bags were behind an outbreak of norovirus — virulent stomach flu — among young soccer players, says a new study in the Journal of Infectious Diseases. Epidemiologists from the Oregon Public Health Division and Oregon Health & Science University found that “virus particles from vomit and feces can actually fly through the air, land on things like bags, and then survive there for weeks.”
As NPR’s health blog, Shots, points out, if you needed a reason to wash out your reusable shopping bags, there it is.
The norovirus is responsible for an estimated 21 million cases of stomach illness in US alone.
In October of 2010, 17 teenage soccer players and their four chaperones became ill after staying at a hotel in Washington state. One player got the virus (how is not known) and became very sick in a hotel bathroom where a plastic, reusable bag of food had been stowed. The chaperone took the girl home and became herself. The bag of food was left behind.
Enter another chaperone, who takes the bag back to her room, and distributes the food to the other players and chaperones. They also get sick. But the key point here is that the first sick player and chaperone never saw or had direct contact with the others before leaving. This means the others got sick from the bag, the researchers concluded.
As Repp points out, food should not be stored in the bathroom. If someone with norovirus is around food, the food should be discarded.
NPR notes that plastic reusable shopping bags have been culprits as germ carriers in other cases:
As we reported back in 2010, one study found that more than half of a batch of 84 reusable grocery bags contained some sort of coliform bacteria, including E. coli,though the health risks from those findings seemed minimal.
Indeed. The study is a good reminder about how easy it is for viruses to be transmitted and spread. Back in January, there was an outbreak of really bad stomach flu at my son’s autism center. Many students, my son included, and staff caught it. The teachers told me how bad it was (“the worst stomach flu ever“) and my son was utterly miserable; unable to tell us how terrible he felt in words, he banged the back of his head so hard on a wall that he needed staples. Of course, the teachers at his school emphasize hygiene and hand-washing, especially as all the students are autistic or have other disabilities, and the staff is constantly cleaning the facility. But still, it is impossible to account for everything.
While the plastic, reusable shopping bag is not in and of itself the reason for the outbreak in Oregon, it is a reminder of how important it is to clean those bags. How many of us, over-accustomed to our disposable culture in which things are tossed out rather than carefully cleaned and kept, actually do so?
Don’t just wash your hands. Wash those bags too!
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