The Gut Puncher
Norovirus, the most common cause of gastroenteritis, also known more inexactly as stomach flu, is making an unwelcome visit to the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea. Considering how norovirus thrives in crowded conditions, its appearance in Pyeongchang before the Games even began is a nightmare for organizers, as well as for the poor unfortunates who come down with the illness. One of the names it has become rather unfairly known by is “cruise ship virus”, as if the illness were more prevalent on cruise ships than anywhere else. Norovirus actually afflicts cruise ship passengers no more or less than people existing in similarly crowded conditions elsewhere, but when it strikes on a cruise ship the outbreak attracts notoriety because of reporting requirements in the industry and because changes in the itinerary of cruise ships to offload sick passengers easily become common knowledge.
A Woman Lying Awake in Bed, circa 1635-1640 drawing by Rembrandt (1606-1669).
As much as the cruise ship industry chafes under its unfairly exaggerated association with norovirus, the citizens of Norwalk, Ohio, might have been perturbed that for the last third of the twentieth century their small city not far from Cleveland lent its name to the virus until the International Committee on Taxonomy of Viruses (ICTV) changed it officially from Norwalk virus to norovirus. An outbreak of the virus at a Norwalk elementary school in 1968 led to the first scientific isolation and identification of it under the microscope, though it had been known to exist from similar outbreaks around the world since at least the 1920s. The history of the virus before then is unknown, which could be due to any number of factors, including the similarity of some of the symptoms to influenza and the low risk of life-threatening complications compared to those brought on by the influenza virus, leading to it not receiving as much notice over the years as influenza, or getting lumped together with it. It is also possible it wasn’t until the mid-twentieth century that the virus mutated to become the causative agent of misery we recognize it for today, drawing our attention, our fear and loathing, and our research efforts toward a vaccine to limit the suffering.