Norovirus Cases On The Rise In Yellowstone National Park
June 20, 2013

Norovirus Cases On The Rise In Yellowstone National Park

Lawrence LeBlond for - Your Universe Online

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) noted in a January weekly report that norovirus had taken a stronghold in the US, with numbers of cases rising. The virus, which is associated with flu-like symptoms and causes uncontrollable vomiting, has in fact been showing its ugly face in schools, on cruise ships and around other public places in recent months.

Now, a new report from the National Park Service has declared that the highly-contagious norovirus has shown up in two of America's premier national parks: Yellowstone and Grand Teton.

NPS officials warned visitors on Wednesday about the illness after at least 200 people have been sickened with the bug since the beginning of the tourist season. The warning advises park visitors to wash their hands thoroughly to help keep the virus from spreading. The warning also requires businesses to increase cleaning and disinfection of all public areas and also asks potentially infected park workers to isolate themselves until they are symptom-free of the virus for at least 72 hours.

The first reports of illness came on June 7, when members of a tour group visiting Mammoth Hot Springs in Yellowstone began complaining of stomach issues. Park employees who had been in contact with this group had also reported similar symptoms within 48 hours.

After the first reports came through, park officials presumed the infections would be diminishing. But newer reports of infection have resurfaced in the last week, with some 150 park employees in Yellowstone and Grand Teton reporting virus-related illness. Both parks have reported workers coming forward with symptoms of vomiting and diarrhea, and some have been confirmed to be norovirus cases.

“Given the nature of the illness, having some cases confirmed prompts us to treat any reported illness with similar symptoms as if it were a confirmed case of norovirus," Yellowstone spokesman Al Nash said in a statement to Jackson Hole News.

Since the initial outbreak started, around 50 visitors have visited clinics in Yellowstone with norovirus-like illness.

As for Grand Teton, park spokeswoman Jackie Skaggs said the infections, while troubling, are not really a surprise.

“We share visitors with Yellowstone," Skaggs said. “When something of this nature happens, it´s only logical to assume that we would have similar cases show up down in Grand Teton National Park."

While the first cases began in Yellowstone around June 7, the first Grand Teton case had not been reported until last Saturday, according to Michael Takagi, a physician's assistant at Grand Teton Medical Clinic at Jackson Lake Lodge.

“Unfortunately there is no treatment for it besides pulling through it and preventing dehydration," Takagi said. He urged that anyone who thinks they may be sick stay away from the park and other people as much as possible until symptoms are gone.

Norovirus is easily spread through contact with an infected person, touching contaminated surfaces or by consuming contaminated food and drink. The most common symptoms are stomach pain, vomiting, nausea and diarrhea, according to the CDC.

While the virus seems to be running rampant through the parks, Melanie Pearce, county public health nurse manager, said valley residents shouldn't worry too much. As far as she knows, no cases have yet surfaced in nearby Jackson, Wyoming.

Still, she cautioned, that doesn't mean people shouldn't take precautions. “There are lots of tour buses that go through Yellowstone and Grand Teton that stay here and eat," Pearce told Ben Graham of Jackson Hole News.

A wide range of comments lit up Yellowstone's Facebook page following the news release. Some responded with appreciation for offering an update while others expressed concern over hearing about the illness before planning a trip to the park.

One woman, who was one of the visitors who got sick during the June 7 visit to Mammoth Hot Springs, wrote in a comment on the page that it was “the worst pain I have ever had."

The norovirus illnesses come less than a year after news of another virus that plagued Yosemite National Park, sickening at least eight people and killing three.

Last summer, Hantavirus pulmonary syndrome was reported at the park after visitors had stayed at the popular Curry Village “tent" cabins. The virus forced park officials to reach out to more than 230,000 people who had visited Yosemite between June and August, 2012.

Hantavirus pulmonary syndrome is rare but serious. Symptoms mimic a cold or flu and can be spread through contact with urine, fecal matter and saliva of infected rodents, particularly deer mice. Typically, the infection arises once humans breathe in the dust created by the drying fluids.

CNN has also reported on another problem that national parks are facing this year. A $113 million budget cut to national park programs as part of the federal government “sequester" could force limitations in what park officials can do to protect visitors from future biological threats.

However, there has been no indication yet that the lower funding will have an impact on how park officials from Yellowstone and Grand Teton handle the growing number of norovirus cases.