New research shows that copper alloy surfaces may prevent the spread of the norovirus, which is difficult to control and, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), causes 21 million illnesses a year. Norovirus outbreaks regularly shut down hospital wards and care homes, requiring expensive deep-cleaning. In March 2013, a Royal Caribbean ship returned to port after at least 100 passengers fell sick with norovirus. Professor Bill Keevil, Chair in Environmental Healthcare at the University of Southampton and head researcher on the project, presented at the American Society for Microbiology’s 2013 General Meeting last week, where he showed that surfaces containing more than 60 per cent copper proved very effective in destroying it.
Noroviruses are a group of viruses that can affect the stomach and intestines and cause people to have gastroenteritis, an inflammation of the stomach and the large intestines. For every laboratory-confirmed case, scientists estimate there are many more unreported ones, for a total of some 267 million per year. Varying strains of norovirus are normal, and one usually becomes dominant every season.
No treatment exists for norovirus other than to let it take its course. Norovirus symptoms last 24 to 48 hours and are spread by food or water contaminated by fecal matter during its preparation, or otherwise coming into contact with fecal matter. This includes shaking hands with an infected person or touching any surface contaminated with norovirus. Severe diarrhea and vomiting from a norovirus infection can lead to dehydration. Preventative measures include proper hand hygiene with soap and water, not preparing food while sick with the norovirus, washing food during its preparation and generally taking care to disinfect surfaces. Due to their low alcohol content, common hand sanitizers are not effective in killing noroviruses.
Ian Goodfellow, a scientist who has studied norovirus for 10 years, describes it as “the Ferrari of the virus world.” Norovirus, previously called Norwalk-like virus, is named after an outbreak that occurred in Norwalk, Ohio, about 35 years ago.
This new research may help prevent the spread of disease in places such as hospitals, nursing homes, and ships. As Dr. Keevil put it, “Copper alloy surfaces can be employed in high-risk areas such as cruise ships and care homes, where norovirus outbreaks are hard to control because infected people can’t help but contaminate the environment with vomiting and diarrhea.”