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Winter is the season for Norovirus! Norovirus is a virus that’s the most common cause of “stomach flu”, or gastroenteritis. It strikes fast; those with it come down with vomiting, diarrhea, abdominal cramping. About 1 in 5 adults get gastroenteritis every year; nearly everyone has it at some point in their lifetimes.

With Norovirus going around yet another year, test your Norovirus IQ with these 6 Facts or Myths:

#1. Fact or myth: You can get Norovorius from touching a doorknob.
Fact. You can get Norovirus from touching something that a person with the virus touched. That includes doorknobs, but also anything else that organisms can live on: computer keyboards, coffeemakers, faucets, etc. That’s why it’s so important to wash your hands frequently; with so many people infected with it in the winter, you can catch it easily from a colleague or family member.

#2. Fact or myth: Norovirus is the same thing as food poisoning.
Myth. This myth came about because you can get Norovirus by sharing the food or drink of someone who has it, and by eating or drinking infected food or drink. Also, Norovirus spreads very fast, especially in close quarters such as nursing homes, schools, and cruiseships—another reason why people confuse it with food poisoning. However, food poisoning is caused by a toxin found in the food, not a virus that's spread through food. No matter the label, it’s important not to share food with people who may be sick and to beware of raw or undercooked food.

#3. Fact or myth: There is a Norovirus vaccine.
Fact. There are vaccines that have been developed against Norovirus, but they aren’t very effective. That’s because the virus mutates quickly, and each season produces several new strains of the Virus. So even though vaccines exist, they are not routinely recommended to prevent Norovirus.

#4. Fact or myth: There are effective medicines that will kill Norvirus.
Myth. The bad news is that there are no effective antiviral medicines that will kill Norovirus. The good news is that Norovirus is generally a harmless and self-limiting condition. The biggest danger is that of dehydration, and symptoms are typically gone in 2-3 days without treatment. Medications such as antidiarrheals may have more risks than benefits, so resting and keeping well hydrated are the key steps to recovery.

#5. Fact or myth: Pregnant women are particular at danger if they contract Norovirus.
Myth. Studies have shown that there are no unique harms of Norovirus during pregnancy, and Norovirus does not directly affect the baby. However, the symptoms of vomiting and diarrhea can lead to dehydration and electrolyte imbalances. This can increase the likelihood of a urinary tract infection and potentially of preterm labor. For these reasons, pregnant women should take extra caution to not contract Norovirus and other illnesses.

#6. Fact or myth: There are effective ways to prevent catching Norovirus
Fact. Here are 4 ways to prevent getting Norovirus:
   1)    Avoid people who have symptoms of vomiting and diarrhea. Don’t share their utensils or their food or drink.
   2)    Wash your hands with soap and water often and well, especially if you are in close quarters with potential sick people such as hospitals, schools, daycare centers, and nursing homes.
   3)    Beware of raw and undercooked food. Wash salads carefully. Cook meat and seafood well.
   4)    Keep healthy. Eat healthy, regular meals; rest; and exercise. Build up your immune system in case you do get exposed to this or other viruses.

Norovirus is a common, but unpleasant illness. If you do get it, make sure to drink plenty of fluids and get good rest. You may need to see your doctor if you can’t keep down fluids, have high fevers, or experience severe pain. Make sure your doctor listens to you and gives you a diagnosis—and explains to you what to do. As with anything else, prevention is the best medicine.
Recently, I had the honor of meeting Catherine, a mother, caregiver, and patient advocate. Seven years ago, Catherine became pregnant with twins. In week 29, she was told that Twin B had died. Twin A was born two months later.

She was named Alexis (her twin, whose footprints her parents will always cherish, was Kaitlyn). Weighing just 4 pounds at birth, she was in the neonatal intensive care unit for months. Catherine and her husband were told numerous times that Alexis was going to die, but despite her long list of medical problems, “the list was overshadowed by her will to live.”

At just one year old, Alexis was diagnosed with no less than 15 serious medical conditions. Her medical records were taller than her, and the list was growing. Thankfully, Alexis was growing, too, into a remarkable young girl.  In fact, says Catherine, that was her biggest problem with Alexis’s medical care for so long. “I wish more doctors acknowledged the bright side.”

Catherine’s stories of how her doctors perceived and interacted with her child are sobering. At one point, a doctor walked into her room and told her family that Alexis had just one month to live and that it was time to get the rest of the family—then just walked out.

As a mother of a sick child, she has four lessons for healthcare professionals. I have copied them verbatim from her blog entry, because her voice is so poignant and so important: 

1) “Always acknowledge, appreciate and respect the family.

2) “Please understand why we are so anxious to know a diagnosis. We appreciate your desire to be thorough and “solve” our child’s problem, but that solution is often just the beginning for us. We’re anxious to know how our lives will change and to find ways to balance that change with parenting techniques that will make our children’s lives better.” 

3) “We need to be partners in the care of our kids. You see them for a few hours every year; we keep them alive for the other 8,755 hours.”

3) “We know that part of being a team means getting bad news. However, you have the power to layer those conversations with as much hope and understanding as possible. Please do your best to exercise that power.”

Doctors, nurses, health professionals—take heed. Patients, too—remember that you can demand this standard of care from your healthcare providers. Make sure your doctor listens. Ask for a diagnosis. Assure your doctor that it’s OK if she’s not 100% sure; please share with you what she knows. Partner in your care. Ask your doctor why he is recommending this test or that treatment. Exercise your power to get the care that you and your loved ones deserve.

Alexis is now six. Catherine describes how she watched a pediatrician burst into tears as she watched Alexis walk hand-in-hand with her dad. 

“That afternoon,” she writes, “We all saw Alexis as not a collection of problems but as a bundle of hope. We knew that six years after her birth, ‘A’ didn’t stand for Alexis, it stood for Awesome.”

Thanks to Thriving, Boston Children’s Hospital pediatric health blog, for allowing parts of Catherine’s original blog to be published. Have other stories to share that may help other patients, caregivers, and health professionals? I welcome your comments.