The Ministry of Food and Drug Safety and Korea Center for Disease Control distributed 15,000 bottles of hand sanitizer to combat an outbreak of norovirus at the Olympics, the New York Daily News reports. Health authorities have also hung signs all over at the Pyeongchang Olympics in South Korea reminding people to clean their hands. Unfortunately, the bottles of 62-percent ethanol hand sanitizer that The New York Times said was distributed by young volunteers will do little to stop the spread of the incredibly contagious virus.
Norovirus is so contagious that it's been known to shut down entire schools from too many absent students. The most common symptoms are diarrhea, vomiting, and stomach pain. It comes on quickly and can leave its victims vomiting as frequently as every 20 minutes for several hours.
The bad news is that to remove norovirus from our hands before we eat to prevent infection, we have to wash them the old-fashioned way. This is because hand sanitizer just can't destroy norovirus, according to an article published in Applied and Environmental Microbiology nearly five years ago. It may have been five years, but many people still don't realize how virtually useless alcohol-based sanitizers are against this virus.
"Some viruses, like influenza, are coated in lipids, 'envelopes' that alcohol can rupture. But non-enveloped viruses, like norovirus, are generally not affected," the New York Times reported citing the Applied and Environmental Microbiology article.
No matter how much we want alcohol-based sanitizers to protect us from norovirus, the mechanism of the alcohol just doesn't work on this especially contagious bug. The Olympians and everyone there will need to wash their hands thoroughly and regularly with actual soap and water.
Dr. Sarah Hochman, associate hospital epidemiologist at NYU Langone Health, told CNN that hand-washing with soap and water really is the most important way to prevent norovirus infection.
"I know a lot of us use the alcohol-based hand rubs... but the alcohol-based hand rubs are not effective in killing the viral particles," Hochman said.
Meanwhile, norovirus can survive on surfaces for up to four weeks. In room-temperature water, some experts suspect that it can hold strong for a couple of months. Thankfully, most people recover in a few days and it's rarely deadly. Our CDC's rough estimates indicate that less than 0.004 percent of people who are infected with norovirus in the United States actually die from it. The illness is usually self-limiting, and most people recover with no medical treatment.
The Ministry of Food and Drug Safety and Korea Center for Disease Control also stepped up inspection of restaurants. They are also monitoring water quality as well as quarantining patients, the KCDC Director Kim Hyun-jun told reporters, according to Time. The New York Times reported that as of Thursday, more than 1,100 people were still in quarantine at the Pyeongchang Olympics in South Korea due to the norovirus outbreak.