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Published: 11/23/2002

Nasty stomach bug has roots in Norwalk school outbreak

BY BLADE STAFF WRITER

NORWALK, Ohio - It's not exactly something tourism officials would brag about, but Norwalk virus - the virus that's blamed for recently sickening hundreds of cruise ship passengers - is named after Norwalk, Ohio.

“It's kind of a claim to fame,” chuckled Martin Tremmel, health commissioner for Huron County.

In 1968 a mysterious illness struck about 100 elementary pupils and teachers at Bronson Elementary in Norwalk.

No one died in the wave of illnesses, but some were so sick with severe vomiting and diarrhea they were hospitalized briefly.

School officials initially suspected a bad case of the flu, but quickly realized something else was going on. County, state, and federal health officials descended on the rural school and eventually diagnosed a previously unknown type of virus, which they referred to as Norwalk virus.

The virus is often transmitted by tainted food or water, but health officials in Norwalk were never able to pinpoint the cause of the outbreak.

Norwalk virus has never turned up again in the community.

But the virus is still linked to the town because it was discovered there, and Mr. Tremmel said he gets at least one phone call a year about the virus from the media, scientists, or students doing research projects. His department has even prepared a packet of information about the virus and the history of the outbreak here.

As to how residents feel about being known as the place where a nasty virus first popped up, Mr. Tremmel said he doubts most area residents remember the outbreak. But if they do, “I don't think they're particularly bothered by it.”

The virus, while not returning to Huron County, has turned up in other parts of the country. Norwalk virus, which actually is a family of viruses, causes an estimated 181,000 cases of gastrointestinal illness each year in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Symptoms of Norwalk virus infection include nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and abdominal cramps. Headache and low-grade fever also are symptoms. Those infected usually recover in two to three days without serious health problems.



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