NOROVIRUS STOMACH BUG: WHAT IS IT? WHAT ARE THE SYMPTOMS?

A new strain of norovirus accounted for 58% of the reported cases of what some people call “stomach flu” last month.

As if this year’s robust flu season weren’t enough, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports today that a new strain of the vomiting disease norovirus has reached the USA from Australia. Last month, the bug, which causes nausea, forceful vomiting, diarrhea and abdominal pain, accounted for 58% of outbreaks of norovirus nationally.

It’s not clear whether this strain is more likely to infect people or make them more ill than previous strains, but according to Aron Hall, an epidemiologist with the CDC’s division of viral diseases, any time a new strain emerges, it has the potential to increase disease “because people haven’t been exposed to it before, so they’re more susceptible.”

The norovirus season typically runs from November through March and peaks in January.

“This  year, that unfortunately coincides with an early increase in flu season,” Hall said. Some people mistakenly call norovirus “stomach flu,” but aside from timing, “there’s no connection between them at all,” he said.

Norovirus typically begins very suddenly and lasts one to three days. Most people recover without treatment, but  some require rehydration with liquids or  intravenous fluids. The disease is most severe in the elderly and can also hit young children hard. Every year, more than 21 million Americans become infected with acute stomach bugs, called gastroenteritis by doctors, and approximately 800 die, according to the CDC. Much of that is probably from norovirus, Hall said.

The new strain was first detected in Australia last March and has caused outbreaks in several other countries. From September through December, it was the leading cause of norovirus outbreaks in the USA, according to this week’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report from the CDC. Norovirus mutates rapidly, and new strains are common, typically showing up every two or three years, said Jan Vinjé, director of CaliciNet, an outbreak surveillance network for noroviruses in the USA.

Norovirus is extremely contagious. The best protection is vigilant hand  washing  with soap and water. If surfaces may have been contaminated, the CDC recommends disinfecting them with a diluted bleach solution made of five to 25  tablespoons of household bleach to a gallon of water.

Researchers are working to create a vaccine for norovirus, but nothing is ready for the market, Vinjé said. “I think in the next five to 10 years, probably closer to 10,” he said.

By Ngo Okafor

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THINK IT’S HOT WHERE YOU ARE? IMAGINE LIVING IN THE BAKING HEAT HERE

For many Americans, the past month has been miserably hot.

Heat advisories and warnings have been issued from coast to coast, with high temperatures often reaching into the triple digits. More than 4,500 record highs have been set across the country in the past 30 days, according to the National Climatic Data Center.

But in certain parts of the world, this is the norm — or maybe even on the cool side.

Try Kuwait City, for instance. In July, its average high temperature is 116 degrees Fahrenheit.

Or Timbuktu in Mali, where the highs average 108 in May and was once recorded at 130. 130! That ranks fifth on the all-time list.

The highest temperature ever recorded on the planet was in 1922, when a thermometer in El Azizia, Libya, hit 136. Some dispute that mark, saying it was improperly measured. If that’s true, the record would be the 134, reached nine years earlier in Death Valley, California.

But the world’s hottest place might not be any of these, according to a team of scientists from the University of Montana. It says the highest temperatures on Earth are found in areas that don’t even have weather stations.

“The Earth’s hot deserts — such as the Sahara, the Gobi, the Sonoran and the Lut — are climatically harsh and so remote that access for routine measurements and maintenance of a weather station is impractical,” said David Mildrexler, lead author of a recent study that used NASA satellites to detect the Earth’s hottest surface temperatures.

The satellites detect the infrared energy emitted by land. And over a seven-year period, from 2003 to 2009, they found Iran’s Lut Desert to be the hottest place on Earth.

The Lut Desert had the highest recorded surface temperature in five of the seven years, topping out at 159 degrees in 2005. Other notable annual highs came from Queensland, Australia (156 degrees in 2003) and China’s Turpan Basin (152 degrees in 2008).

It’s important to stress that surface temperatures are naturally higher than the air temperatures measured by weather stations. Air temperatures have to be measured by thermometers placed off the ground and shielded from sunlight, according to global meteorological standards.

But the study shows that today’s modern records might not necessarily be the most accurate.

“Most of the places that call themselves the hottest on Earth are not even serious contenders,” co-author Steve Running said.

The world’s highest recorded air temperatures 1. El Azizia, Libya (136 degrees Fahrenheit) 2. Death Valley, California (134) 3. Ghadames, Libya (131) 3. Kebili, Tunisia (131) 5. Timbuktu, Mali (130) 5. Araouane, Mali (130) 7. Tirat Tsvi, Israel (129) 8. Ahwaz, Iran (128) 8. Agha Jari, Iran (128) 10. Wadi Halfa, Sudan (127)

Highest recorded air temperature (by continent) Africa: El Azizia, Libya (136) North America: Death Valley, California (134) Asia: Tirat Tsvi, Israel (129) Australia: Cloncurry, Queensland (128*) Europe: Seville, Spain (122) South America: Rivadavia, Argentina (120) Antarctica: Vanda Station, Scott Coast (59)