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Scientists Link Stomach Flu Outbreak to Reusable Shopping Bag

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"As long as something can land on it, it can transmit the virus."

Scientists have discovered that a reusable grocery bag contaminated with what some experts are calling "the perfect pathogens" is responsible for an outbreak of norovirus infections in a group of middle school soccer players, MSNBC's JoNel Aleccia reports.

For those of you who aren’t familiar with the term "norovirus," it's the bug behind the “stomach flu.” You know, the thing that gives you powerful bouts of vomiting or “watery diarrhea” or both (because why not?).

How did this happen? The simplest explanation is that the reusable bag was just plain dirty. It was a playground for bacteria and germs.

“We wash our clothes when they’re dirty; we should wash our bags, too,” said Kimberly K. Repp, an epidemiologist with the Washington County Department of Health and Human Services, whose work on the infected reusable bags will be published in the “Journal of Infectious Diseases.”

Repp was part of the team tasked with figuring out why a group of middle school soccer players and their chaperons caught the bug while they were staying on the road for a weekend tournament.

The thing that puzzled the scientists studying the minor outbreak was the fact that the first person to get the bug was removed from the others and taken home the next day. But despite not being exposed to the virus, the others still caught it.

The reason this was so puzzling is because prior to this specific incident, it was generally believed that the bug could only be transmitted through person-to-person interaction.

“It involved really thinking outside the bag, so to speak,” Repp said.

After digging into the story, her team discovered the reason nine people caught the stomach flu was because of a reusable shopping bag that was left near the bathroom where the first soccer player became violently ill.

“The girl had been very ill in the hotel bathroom, spreading an aerosol of norovirus that landed everywhere, including on the reusable grocery bag hanging in the room,” Aleccia writes.

Simply put, “virus particles from vomit and feces can actually fly through the air, land on things like bags, and then survive there for week," according to NPR.

Repp's team investigated the bag and found it tested positive for the bug -- two weeks after the incident.

Considering that noroviruses "are perhaps the perfect human pathogens," as Aron J. Hall of the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (try putting that on a business card) writes, and the fact that the virus is responsible for an estimated 70,000 hospitalizations and 800 deaths, the fact that it can latch onto things like dirty reusable grocery bags for weeks at a time is disconcerting (to say the least).

The norovirus

And this isn’t the first time scientists have written about diseases carried by the eco-friendly bags .

“[Repp’s] Oregon study follows a 2010 paper by researchers at the University of Arizona and Loma Linda University that found large numbers of bacteria in reusable grocery bags, including 12 percent that were contaminated with E. coli,” Aleccia, “When scientists stored the bags in the trunks of cars for two hours, the number of bacteria jumped 10-fold.”

Needless to say, this most recent discovery will probably reignite arguments over the safety of reusable bags and possibly stymie activists' attempts to ban stores from offering paper or plastic alternatives.

Of course, to be fair, the norovirus isn't exclusively attracted to reusable bags.

"As long as something can land on it, it can transmit the virus," says Repp. "It doesn't matter what the substance is."

So perhaps the lessons here are a) keep bags of food away from middle schoolers who happen to be violently ejecting their insides and b) wash your bags.

This story has been updated.

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