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Call dibs on the bathroom, and wash your hands — now.

That’s because a highly contagious stomach virus is making people sick on cruise ships and in schools, hotels and hospitals, all over the U.S. and in Germany.

The norovirus — highly contagious but usually short-lived and thought to cause no continuing health problems — is epidemic right now in Germany, with epidemiologists counting 6,000 reported infections in a week.

“It is counted in this year on a new record level (of) norovirus illnesses,” according to the Web site of the Robert Koch Institute, Germany’s center for disease control and prevention.

“We don’t know what the reason is [for this year’s spike],” said Dr. Sabina Diedrich at the institute.

But the virus has not made its way into the U.S. military population, said Lt. Col. William Corr, chief of the European Regional Medical Command’s preventive medicine efforts.

“So far, so good,” he said. “Based on other outbreaks, there is some insulation between the local communities and American communities.”

Corr said ERMC officials had some concern that the common virus could become a problem for U.S. soldiers and families, but so far there has been only a slight increase in the number of people coming to the Landstuhl Regional Medical Center’s emergency room with diarrhea.

The military disease tracking agency — the Center of Health Promotion and Preventive Medicine Europe — reported a small spike in gastrointestinal cases in the Würzburg and Heidelberg clinics and hospitals on Jan. 16, with 23 visits. Since then, such visits have dropped to normal levels, according to ERMC spokeswoman Jeri Chappelle.

The virus causes gastroenteritis, or inflammation of the stomach and intestines. That, in turn, causes the following symptoms: nausea, vomiting, diarrhea and stomach cramps. Symptoms appear one or two days after infection, and generally end within three days.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the norovirus causes some 23 million cases of gastroenteritis in the U.S. annually. Norovirus is sometimes called the “stomach flu,” although it is not related to the flu, the CDC Web site states.

“Norovirus can be found in the vomit and diarrhea of people who are sick. When someone vomits, people nearby may be exposed to tiny droplets in the air,” according to the British Columbia health ministry.

Corr said the droplet theory was “interesting,” but that everyone agreed the major prevention effort is hand-washing.

“If you take care not to get vomit or feces into your eyes, nose or mouth, you’ll be OK,” he said. “Keep on washing those hands.”

When the virus has appeared in clusters at schools, hotels or cruise ships, they’ve been emptied, closed and cleaned.

The virus, the second most commonly reported illness after cold viruses, was first identified in 1972 after an outbreak in Norwalk, Ohio, and was formerly called the Norwalk Virus. But it’s likely been making people sick anonymously, before it was identified and named, for who knows how many years. “It may be it’s been around for the longest time,” Corr said.

All about norovirus

What is it?Noroviruses are a group of viruses that can affect the stomach and intestines. These viruses can cause people to have gastroenteritis, an inflammation of the stomach and the large intestines. Noroviruses are highly contagious, but infections are not usually serious.

SymptomsCommon symptoms: vomiting, diarrhea and some stomach cramping. Less-common symptoms: low-grade fever, chills, headache, muscle aches, nausea and tiredness. Normally the illness lasts about one to two days.

Where noroviruses are foundNoroviruses are found in the stool or vomit of infected people and on infected surfaces that have been touched by ill people. Outbreaks occur more often where people are confined in a small area.

How it spreadsEating food or drinking liquids infected with noroviruses.Touching surfaces or objects infected with noroviruses and then touching own mouth, nose or eyes. Having person-to-person contact with an infected person, to include caring for a sick person or shaking hands.

What to do if you get itAdvise the medical staff of your illness.

Drink plenty of fluids. Wash hands often.

How to prevent getting itWash hands often.Wash hands after using the bathroom or changing diapers and before eating or preparing food. Wash hands more often when someone in your home is sick.

Source: National Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

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Nancy is an Italy-based reporter for Stars and Stripes who writes about military health, legal and social issues. An upstate New York native who served three years in the U.S. Army before graduating from the University of Arizona, she previously worked at The Anchorage Daily News and The Seattle Times. Over her nearly 40-year journalism career she’s won several regional and national awards for her stories and was part of a newsroom-wide team at the Anchorage Daily News that was awarded the 1989 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service.
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