Good handwashing is more effective than hand sanitizer use in reducing the risk of getting norovirus, according to the Food Safety Information Council (FSIC).

Hand sanitizers are effective against reducing COVID-19 but have little effect on the spread of norovirus. Frequently washing hands with soap and warm water for 20 seconds and drying with a paper towel for another 20 seconds will reduce the risk of contracting norovirus.

A previous survey of 1,232 adults in Australia in August 2020 found people reported they washed their hands an average of 7.5 times a day and sanitized them 3.9 times daily. Alcohol based hand sanitizers are not as effective against some viruses, including norovirus, which is the top cause of gastroenteritis.

Cathy Moir, FSIC chair, said norovirus causes vomiting and diarrhea.

“Cases occur all year round but they peak during winter possibly because that is when we tend to be in closer contact indoors allowing the virus to easily spread. Norovirus outbreaks are also common where people are in close living spaces, such as aged-care and childcare facilities, hospitals, cruise ships and community sporting events,” she said.

“Norovirus is highly contagious. A single infected person can easily spread it to many others, especially if they don’t wash their hands properly or prepare food or drink for others while they’re sick.”

Increase noted in different states
Health officials in the state of Victoria warned in November 2020 and March this year of a rapid rise in outbreaks of viral gastroenteritis in childcare centers.

The number of incidents was up fourfold from the five-year average to almost 400. Most outbreaks were caused by norovirus with a person-to-person transmission. Children in childcare or school and staff who develop vomiting or diarrhea were urged to stay at home until at least 48 hours after their symptoms stopped.

In November 2020, New South Wales Health warned of a rise in viral gastroenteritis cases in childcare centers. Nearly 60 centers reported outbreaks of gastroenteritis in October which was significantly higher than usual. More than 480 children and 120 staff were affected and levels remained high throughout November.

In South Australia there were four outbreaks reported in November, and 17 in December. However, gastroenteritis and norovirus infections are not notifiable in the state so officials said this was an under-estimate of the number of incidents. Queensland and Western Australia have also seen more reported outbreaks than usual.

Symptoms of viral gastroenteritis include nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, fever, abdominal pain, headache and muscle aches. They can take up to three days to develop, can be severe, and usually last between one or two days.

The main treatment is to rest and drink plenty of fluids. Most people recover without complications, but it can be serious for infants, people with suppressed immune systems and the elderly. Do not handle or prepare food for anyone for at least 24 hours after symptoms have ended and don’t share plates, utensils or drinks with others.

World Hand Hygiene Day is today, May 5. The Save Lives: Clean your Hands campaign targets the medical sector but focuses on cleaning hands, ensuring supplies are available and preventing transmission of infectious microorganisms during healthcare delivery.

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