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The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced this week that it is working in conjunction with federal, state, and local officials to investigate a norovirus outbreak linked to British Columbia oysters.

The FDA has confirmed that potentially contaminated raw oysters harvested in the south and central parts of Baynes Sound in British Columbia, Canada, were distributed to six states: Alaska, California, Illinois, Maine, New York, and Washington.

The FDA said it is possible that additional states received the British Columbia oysters, either directly from Canada or through further distribution within the United States.

According to the Canadian government, the implicated shellfish farms where oysters are harvested in British Columbia have been closed for harvest. Canada has experienced more than 170 cases of gastrointestinal illness.

Health officials from both countries are advising that if you have British Columbia oysters, you should throw them out, return them from where they were purchased, or cook them thoroughly (to an internal temperature of 145 degrees Fahrenheit).

British Columbia oysters
British Columbia oysters:

What is norovirus?

Norovirus is one of the leading causes of acute gastroenteritis around the globe, and it affects about 20 million Americans annually. It is highly contagious and can be spread by contaminated food, contaminated surfaces, or even simply close contact with an infected person.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), norovirus – often referred to as the “winter vomiting bug” – is responsible for about 20 million cases of acute gastroenteritis in the United States. Almost 10 percent (2 million) of those cases will result in outpatient visits, and 400,000 victims – mostly young children – will visit emergency rooms.

In addition, the CDC says, up to 71,000 victims will need to be hospitalized, and as many as 800 of those cases will end in death, mostly among young children and the elderly.

Norovirus outbreaks are most common in places where people are gathered in close quarters, such as:

  • school cafeterias
  • child-care centers
  • nursing homes
  • restaurants
  • cruise ships.

Norovirus can infect anyone, but it is most deadly for the very young, the elderly, and people with weakened immune systems.

The incubation period for norovirus is short, from 12 to 48 hours. Symptoms are similar to those of other foodborne illnesses, and include:

  • nausea
  • vomiting
  • abdominal pain
  • diarrhea
  • fever
  • muscle pain.

The CDC reports that foods most often involved with norovirus outbreaks include shellfish, leafy greens, and fruit – but any food served raw can be contaminated.

Norovirus outbreaks:
Schoolchildren in the news

According to a report in the Chicago Tribune, about 15 kindergartners from a Chicago parochial school became ill this week with norovirus-like symptoms after a recent visit to the Shedd Aquarium. Just last week, more than 100 students from Andrew High School in suburban Tinley Park reported being ill with similar symptoms after the school held its prom at the aquarium. Both outbreaks are being investigated by Chicago-area health officials.

In February of last year, two outbreaks involving schoolchildren made headlines in the United States:

  • On Feb. 8, Minneapolis’ Minnehaha Academy closed its Upper School for two days after almost 100 students and staff members called in sick. No one was hospitalized.
  • On Feb. 3, the Los Angeles Times reported that John Adams Middle School in Santa Monica was closed after almost 200 students were exposed to the norovirus during a school trip to Yosemite National Park.