Now Showing: the Norovirus!

861269_virusBroadcast news media in the United States are beginning to warn about the new strain of norovirus sweeping the nation.

It’s bad, they say, and likely to get worse as it peaks in mid-February. Called “Gll.4 Sydney” for its origins in Australia in March of 2012, the virus has infected more than a million in the UK, with appearances in France and New Zealand as well – though why it should have targeted France, out of all the countries on the European continent, is a mystery.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, or CDC, the locations where the norovirus Sydney is most likely to be found include long-term care centers (also called skilled nursing facilities, assisted living facilities or nursing homes) and restaurants. And again, the venue (restaurants?) is mysteriously selective.

There’s nothing mysterious about the norovirus, though. It comes with particularly icky credentials, including vomiting and diarrhea, and seems to target not the very young, very old and immune-system compromised as is usual, but a younger population at the peak of health and vitality.

In this, it is exactly like the pandemic of 1918-1920, also known as the “Spanish Flu”, which swept the globe and killed about 50 million individuals in the prime of their lives. And that is what is most disturbing about this season’s norovirus, which infectious disease experts predict will only get stronger as global warming gives diseases in general the ability to mutate faster than the human immune system can adapt.

Today’s norovirus is also totally opportunistic, targeting a population which has never been infected with this particular strain before. And because it only makes victims sick – really, really sick, earning it the sobriquet “the vomiting flu” – it succeeds in ways that some more lethal viruses don’t; it leaves its victims alive and able to spread the sickness even farther. In fact, this norovirus is so potent that you can actually catch it from a toilet seat, or even from the air in a bathroom recently used by someone already ill, according to the UK’s Health and Safety Laboratory.

In fact, since it is also able to live on hard surfaces like countertops and tables for a surprisingly long time, able to reproduce thousands of times more rapidly than its human victims, and equally able to travel some distance from its source on the hands and faces (and, one would suppose, the feet) of those infected, this strain of norovirus is more than opportunistic, it is highly strategic.

Add to its other qualities an ability to spread from as few as 20 particles, even in the presence of some alcohol-based hand sanitizers and domestic cleaning products, as well as its ability to survive on frozen and slightly heated food products, and epidemiologists are recommending specialized hygiene measures like separate bathrooms for sufferers – which is hard to do at home.

Norovirus aside, global warming is also driving the emergence and spread of disease vectors – up to 398 of them in the past decade alone, according to a group of experts reporting at the Global Health Conference at the University of Washington in September of 2010.

These experts noted that not only does climate change affect our ability to grow enough food to feed everyone on the planet, but rising temperatures (particularly in the southern hemisphere) result in the evaporation of billions of gallons of water needed to keep people alive – a progressively more disturbing scenario the closer one gets to examining disease demographics of the 21st century.

If the warming trend continues, say scientists, by 2025 as many as 1.8 billion people might live in areas without enough water to survive. Closer to home, and even more disturbing in its dystopian take on air pollution now and in the near future, consider the Chinese businessman who is making a fortune selling cans of clean air reportedly harvested in the mountains of Tibet.

Could it get worse? Of course. Warming has already spread the vectors for malaria, dengue fever, Yellow Fever and Rift Valley Fever. In the case of malaria, the first truly indigenous case showed up in Florida in 2003. Other diseases once confined by tropical climates and temperatures include West Nile Virus and St. Louis encephalitis.

Nor are humans the only ones likely to suffer as climate change provides more and more opportune temperatures for viruses and bacteria. Consider, for example, the case of the now-extinct golden toad of South America – a toad which finally succumbed to an emerging infectious disease known as Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis.

Equally as devastating is the recent spread of Western equine encephalitis, which has horse lovers, breeders, trainers and veterinarians wondering if researchers will develop a vaccine before the disease takes its toll of one of America’s favorite animals. And, because this disease is zoonotic (spreading from animals to humans), and tests for the disease are totally absent, scientists see serious problems in a warming future.

What else will global warming bring to humanity’s doorstep? According to the United Nation’s 2004/05 report, rising climate temperatures have reintroduced once-eradicated diseases like tuberculosis, with more than 9,000 individuals infected in 2010 – the highest number in the UK in three decades. Another reemerging disease that threatens human populations is scarlet fever. It used to respond to antibiotics, but apparently no more. Outbreaks from China to Michigan State in the U.S. during 2010 show up to a 500-percent increase in what scientists are describing as an even more lethal strain than the one that swept through pioneer America in the 1800 and 1900s.

Finally, consider emerging zoonotic viruses like Hantavirus, which in Europe target the human kidney and renal system while in the U.S. focusing on the lungs and heart. First discovered in the U.S. in 1993, these viruses are developing faster and faster cycles, recurring first in 3-year intervals, but more recently in 2-year periods – an increase which researchers ascribe to global warming and its regional effects, climate change.

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