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Open Access Research article

Gastroenteritis outbreaks associated with Norwalk-like viruses and their investigation by nested RT-PCR

Hugh J O'Neill*, Conall McCaughey, Dorothy E Wyatt, Frederick Mitchell and Peter V Coyle

Author Affiliations

Regional Virus Laboratory, Kelvin Building, Royal Hospitals Trust, Grosvenor Road, Belfast, BT12 6BA, United Kingdom

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BMC Microbiology 2001, 1:14  doi:10.1186/1471-2180-1-14

Published: 1 August 2001



Norwalk-like viruses are the most common cause of gastroenteritis outbreaks and sporadic cases of vomiting and diarrhoea. In healthy individuals infection is often mild and short-lived but in debilitated patients infection can be severe. It is essential that the virus laboratory can offer a sensitive and specific test, delivered in a timely manner.


We have developed a nested reverse transcriptase PCR based on published primers against the RNA polymerase gene and after comparison with electronmicroscopy used the assay to investigate 31 outbreaks of gastroenteritis. These were in diverse situations including nursing homes, small district hospitals, large general hospitals, a ferry ship, hotels, restaurants and staff canteens.


A positive diagnosis was made in 30/31 outbreaks investigated giving an overall outbreak positive detection rate of 97%. At an individual patient level there was a positive diagnostic rate of 11.5% in a large hospital environment to 100% in smaller outbreak situations. The average patient positive rate was 34%. In addition we investigated 532 control faecal specimens from adults. Of these 530 were negative and 2 were repeatedly positive.


It is essential that insensitive electronmicroscopy is replaced with the more sensitive reverse transcription PCR assays. These tests should be made available "on call" at weekends and public holidays. It is also important that outbreaks of NLV infection are monitored using sensitive RT-PCR assays so that the laboratory information can be used in ascertaining the spread and duration of the outbreak