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Keeping our communities safe and healthy
by Richard Mandsager, M.D.


June 18, 2004

Tourism, as with other large gatherings, brings money and jobs to Alaska. But, let us not forget that tourism season also brings large influxes of people to our relatively small communities. With additional people comes the increased risk of infectious diseases. For
photo Richard Mandsager, M.D.

DHSS Public Health Director Richard Mandsager, M.D.
this reason, we need to take certain basic precautions when expecting crowds of people in our communities. Summer is a remarkable time in Alaska and it would be unfortunate for either our guests or our residents to miss a single moment because of a preventable disease.

The Alaska Department of Health and Social Services, Division of Public Health, in coordination with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and other local, state and federal agencies help ensure our communities are safe and healthy. State Public Health Nurses are available in most communities to advise local business owners and tourism industry workers on the proper precautions to take to help prevent the spread of infectious diseases like Norovirus. The State is also in regular contact with the U.S. Coast Guard, the State Emergency Coordination Center, the Department of Environmental Conservation, and Alaska State Troopers, in addition to local health care facilities and emergency workers in case additional assistance is needed caring for or transporting sick individuals to health care facilities.

At this time last year, everyone was talking about SARS and "cover your mouth and nose when you cough or sneeze" was heard throughout the summer. This year the threat of SARS is not as intense, but other infectious diseases are still being spread. Norovirus is particularly troublesome because it is so highly contagious and quite painful, but the simple precautions mentioned below can help protect you from Norovirus as well as a majority of other infectious diseases.

Norovirus is a common cause of gastrointestinal illness worldwide. Noroviruses are a group of viruses that cause the "stomach flu," or gastroenteritis, with symptoms such as nausea with vomiting, diarrhea, and cramps. These symptoms occur in all age groups although diarrhea is more common among adults and vomiting is more common in children. Many also experience headache, fever, chills and muscle aches. The symptoms may appear from 12-72 hours after exposure to the virus, but usually within 24 to 48 hours.

Noroviruses are predominately spread from person-to-person and some medical reports suggest that the virus can spread through the air during vomiting. Noroviruses are also spread easily by eating or drinking food or water contaminated with feces from an infected person. Less common food-associated outbreaks have been linked to cold prepared, ready to eat foods (e.g., salads, coleslaw, sandwiches) and shellfish harvested in contaminated water. Some outbreaks have also been associated with drinking water and recreational water (e.g., swimming ponds, and beaches).

Unfortunately, there is no treatment for Norovirus, but most people recover in two to three days. In severe cases, supportive treatment such as an intravenous drip (IV) may be needed to prevent dehydration.

Simple precautions, such as thorough hand washing following toilet use and prior to handling food will help to prevent the spread of these viruses as well as help protect against many other infectious diseases. Persons currently ill with diarrhea or vomiting should not handle food, work in day care centers or care for patients in a health care facility until these symptoms have stopped.

A Norovirus Prevention Packet is available for download from the Division of Public Health, Epidemiology website The packet contains a fact sheet, poster, and information about sanitizing for public or business owners.

By working together, we can help to make this another safe, happy, and healthy tourism season for Alaska.


Note: Richard Mandsager, M.D., is the Public Health Director of the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services.


Note: Comments published on Viewpoints are the opinions of the writer
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