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BBB - The Norwalk virus family

Bad Bug Book:
Foodborne Pathogenic Microorganisms and Natural Toxins Handbook
The Norwalk virus family

A new version of the Bad Bug Book was released in 2012, below is a previous version.


1. Name of the Organism:

The Norwalk virus family

Norwalk virus is the prototype of a family of unclassified small round structured viruses (SRSVs) which may be related to the caliciviruses. They contain a positive strand RNA genome of 7.5 kb and a single structural protein of about 60 kDa. The 27-32 nm viral particles have a buoyant density of 1.39-1.40 g/ml in CsCl. The family consists of several serologically distinct groups of viruses that have been named after the places where the outbreaks occurred. In the U.S., the Norwalk and Montgomery County agents are serologically related but distinct from the Hawaii and Snow Mountain agents. The Taunton, Moorcroft, Barnett, and Amulree agents were identified in the U.K., and the Sapporo and Otofuke agents in Japan. Their serological relationships remain to be determined.

2. Nature of Acute Disease:

Common names of the illness caused by the Norwalk and Norwalk-like viruses are viral gastroenteritis, acute nonbacterial gastroenteritis, food poisoning, and food infection.

3. Nature of Disease:

The disease is self-limiting, mild, and characterized by nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and abdominal pain. Headache and low-grade fever may occur. The infectious dose is unknown but presumed to be low.

4. Diagnosis of Human Illness:

Specific diagnosis of the disease can only be made by a few laboratories possessing reagents from human volunteer studies. Identification of the virus can be made on early stool specimens using immune electron microscopy and various immunoassays. Confirmation often requires demonstration of seroconversion, the presence of specific IgM antibody, or a four-fold rise in antibody titer to Norwalk virus on paired acute-convalescent sera.

5. Associated Foods:

Norwalk gastroenteritis is transmitted by the fecal-oral route via contaminated water and foods. Secondary person-to-person transmission has been documented. Water is the most common source of outbreaks and may include water from municipal supplies, well, recreational lakes, swiming pools, and water stored aboard cruise ships.

Shellfish and salad ingredients are the foods most often implicated in Norwalk outbreaks. Ingestion of raw or insufficiently steamed clams and oysters poses a high risk for infection with Norwalk virus. Foods other than shellfish are contaminated by ill food handlers.

6. Relative Frequency of Disease:

Only the common cold is reported more frequently than viral gastroenteritis as a cause of illness in the U.S. Although viral gastroenteritis is caused by a number of viruses, it is estimated that Norwalk viruses are responsible for about 1/3 of the cases not involving the 6-to-24-month age group. In developing countries the percentage of individuals who have developed immunity is very high at an early age. In the U.S. the percentage increases gradually with age, reaching 50% in the population over 18 years of age. Immunity, however, is not permanent and reinfection can occur.

7. Course of Disease and Complications:

A mild and brief illness usually develops 24-48 h after contaminated food or water is consumed and lasts for 24-60 hours. Severe illness or hospitalization is very rare.

8. Target Populations:

All individuals who ingest the virus and who have not (within 24 months) had an infection with the same or related strain, are susceptible to infection and can develop the symptoms of gastroenteritis. Disease is more frequent in adults and older children than in the very young.

9. Food Analysis:

The virus has been identified in clams and oysters by radioimmunoassay. The genome of Norwalk virus has been cloned and development of gene probes and PCR amplification techniques to detect the virus in clinical specimens and possibly in food are under way.

10. Selected Outbreaks:

CDC/MMWR: Norwalk virus family
Provides a list of Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Reports at CDC relating to this organism or toxin. The date shown is the date the item was posted on the Web, not the date of the MMWR. The summary statement shown are the initial words of the overall document. The specific article of interest may be just one article or item within the overall report.
NIH/PubMed: Norwalk virus family
Provides a list of research abstracts contained in the National Library of Medicine's MEDLINE database for this organism or toxin.
Agricola: Norwalk virus family
Provides a list of research abstracts contained in the National Agricultural Library database for this organism or toxin.

For more information on recent outbreaks see the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Reports from CDC.

11. Education and Background Resources:

Literature references can be found at the links below.

  • Viral Gastroenteritis FAQ's

    Center for Disease Control and Prevention of Food Illness FactSheet

  • Loci index for genome Norwalk virus

    Available from the GenBank Taxonomy database, which contains the names of all organisms that are represented in the genetic databases with at least one nucleotide or protein sequence.