Winter vomiting (noro) virus is usually a brief, illness that lasts for a few days. For the vulnerable though diarhoea and vomiting can be more serious and if it spreads in institutional environments it can cause big problems. It transmits very easily – just a few viral particles are all that is required to infect someone.
We don’t know a great deal about why it is more common in winter or why an outbreak can appear “out of nowhere”. There is a suspicion that some individuals can carry the virus in their bodies for a long period. This happens with some other pathogens that use the faecal-oral route, such as the one that causes typhoid. In the notorious case of “Typhoid Mary” a cook passed the infection to a number of people, over a number of years.
A paper published this week has shed new light on the biology of norovirus. Researchers used a strain of mice that were infected with the virus.
One surprising discovery is that certain antibiotics, if given before infection, seem to have a protective effect against noro. This has led to the suspicion that certain gut bacteria can live in symbiotic partnership with the virus and sustain a long-term infection. This mechanism could facilitate a reservoir of infection in the community. Kill the bacteria with antibiotics and you might prevent long term noro infection.
This discovery seems unlikely to lead to antibiotic treatment for the average case of norovirus. The immune system brings about its own cure, within a few days. It’s a classic example of a self-limiting illness. Also, trying to eliminate specific bacteria in the gut is a tricky business – you can kill off friendly bacteria and leave the field clear for the much more persistent Clostridium difficile infection. Any headines suggesting a prospect of antibiotic treatment for noro are misleading.
The other discovery is that there is a specific immune chemical, a fairly recent discovery, that can attack this virus. The immune system’s armoury of chemical weapons is vast and there is still a lot to learn about how individual chemicals interact with specific pathogens. Interferons are a category that have formed the basis for drug development. As drugs they tend to be used for serious illnesses. A fairly newly discovered interferon seems to have had success in eliminating noro infection in mice.
Again this is contributing to the understanding of the virus and the detailed operation of the immune system. In the long term, dosing “carriers” of norovirus, who are not ill, with a potent interferon-based drug, is unlikely to prove to be a practical proposition.
The best defence agains noro virus is hygiene. Wash hands regularly during the winter and if anyone in the family is ill, use diluted bleach to swab down bathroom surfaces.