The Grand Canyon in Arizona and is home to one of the most magnificent examples of erosion found anywhere in the world. But now according to a recent report, it is also home to a gastrointestinal illness that has been devastating over 150 back-country campers and private and river rafters so far this year.
The illness has symptoms that are consistent with norovirus, including nausea, stomach cramping/pain, vomiting, and diarrhea. Norovirus has been confirmed in at least eight rafting trips.
The National Park Service has been working with the Coconino County Health and Human Services and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to monitor and investigate the situation. Since early June, there have been comprehensive control measures that have seen a decrease in reports of the illness.
Norovirus is a very contagious disease and outbreaks are common, although typically it is not life-threatening. The virus normally spreads through contaminated food and surfaces and also from infected people to others. Unfortunately for the Grand Canyon visitors, the norovirus can spread easily on rafts and in camps – due to people being all squished up in communal areas and on group trips, and a lack of easily accessible washing facilities.
Infection with this virus is not a pleasant experience, especially on a campsite when you are far away from shiny, washable modern toilets that have the comforts needed when your body is being violently flushed out from both ends. Symptoms also tend to last around 1-3 days.
Due to this, the National Park Service recommends that people who have been ill in the last 72 hours do not join group trips, and anyone who does become sick during a trip should try and minimize interactions between healthy and ill people.
Also, people should try and avoid touching and sharing food and drinks, and putting their hands into shared food sources (which should be a general life rule for avoiding most illnesses).
Another recommendation should be very familiar after the pandemic. WASH YOUR HANDS. Get those hands nice and sudsy and vigorously scrub a dub dub them clean. Effective hand washing with soap and water is best at removing norovirus particles. In a pinch, hand sanitizers can be used with at least 70 percent alcohol, but as always it is never as good as handwashing.
A biggie when it comes to the prevention of this disease is water treatment. The park recommends filtering and chemically disinfecting all water – as filtering alone will not remove the nasty virus particles. If this isn’t available, it is recommended that water should be heated to a nice rolling boil for one minute. Water in the park is safe to consume from park-provided fountains and spigots, but not from the tranquil water features such as streams, waterfalls, and pools that are found throughout the canyon.
If you do get stuck in the wilderness with no access to the designated toilet area, then all human body waste (yes that includes vomit and poop) should be contained in a portable toilet or a specifically engineered containment system.
The norovirus is not often a life-threatening illness. However, the canyon can be physically demanding and when combined with extreme heat, the virus can cause severe dehydration, which can be very dangerous.
There have been no reports of deaths, but there have been a few infected hikers being rescued by helicopters. Despite this, case reports have been slowing down, but hikers and tourists should still be vigilant.