Research targets gastro outbreaks

Outbreaks of gastro sweeping schools, aged-care homes and hospital wards could become far less frequent, with new research on norovirus set to define parameters around the longevity and infectivity of this highly contagious stomach bug.

Norovirus is common around the world and responsible for the majority of gastroenteritis outbreaks. Around 700 million people contract the short but severe illness each year, including 1.8 million Australians, and no vaccine or cure is available.

In the developed world most patients recover in days, however vulnerable people,  including the elderly and those with compromised immune systems, are at risk of more serious outcomes and longer recovery times.

Although patients return to school or work a day or two after symptoms cease, they may continue to shed the virus for weeks or even months.

Until recently, it has been impossible to study the live virus to comprehensively understand the potential of these shedded particles to infect others.

“It’s only in the past two years that technology has enabled us to develop live norovirus cultures in the lab,” says Associate Professor Jill Carr, medical virologist with the Flinders University College of Medicine and Public Health.

“Before then, researchers have only been able to make assumptions on this unique virus based on those with similar attributes.”

Associate Professor Carr is leading world-first research to find out how shedded norovirus materials behave, including their ability to cause infection and the impact of disinfectants on the notoriously resilient virus.

She is adapting methodology developed at the South Australian Health and Medical Research Institute (SAHMRI) to grow cells from the gut and infect these with norovirus.

The study will employ new technology at the Flinders Cell Screen SA facility to screen large quantities of samples.

“We know people will continue to shed the virus for some time after their illness, but we do not know how infectious these particles are,” she says.

The economic burden of norovirus is huge and was estimated at more than US$44 billion globally in 2017 including healthcare impact, lost productivity and other societal costs.

A better understanding is likely to lead to fewer and shorter-lived outbreaks.

The Flinders University study is funded by a 2018 Flinders Foundation Seed Grant and is being carried out in collaboration with SAHMRI.

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College of Medicine and Public Health

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