MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — Minnesota health officials are stressing hand hygiene to combat the outbreaks of norovirus – commonly called the stomach flu – that have been hitting the state recently.

According to the Minnesota Department of Health (MDH), approximately 40 outbreaks of the norovirus illness have been reported since the beginning of November, occurring in a variety of environments including schools, restaurants, nursing homes and private gatherings.

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While norovirus illness is commonly referred to as stomach flu, the illness is not the same as influenza, which is primarily a respiratory illness.

Health officials say prevention of the illness is simple in principle.

“People need to remember to wash their hands, thoroughly,” Dr. Kirk Smith, who heads the Foodborne Diseases Unit at MDH, said. “Wash your hands after using the toilet, before consuming food, and before preparing food for yourself or others. If everybody did that, we could prevent a majority of the illness caused by these viruses.”

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Smith says the virus causes diarrhea, vomiting and in some cases a low fever. The virus usually lasts a day or two.

Noroviruses are spread primarily through person-to-person contact or contamination of food prepared by a person with the illness.

“People should also remember that they can continue to spread the virus for up to several days after they get over a norovirus infection,” Smith said. “So they should refrain from preparing food – commercially or for their own families – for an additional 72 hours after they get well.”

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The public can report suspected outbreaks of norovirus illness or other food-related illnesses to the MDH Foodborne Illness Hotline at 1-877-FOOD ILL (366-3455).