Why hundred people of Grand Canyon tourists suddenly getting sick?


Why are hundreds of people of Grand Canyon tourists suddenly getting sick?

While hiking in Grand Canyon National Park, Kristi Key found a disturbing site: four hikers resting on the side of the road, looking a little worse when dressed. After learning that two hikers had spent the previous night vomiting violently, Key offered to call the rescue team, but the group refused. But she saw them sitting in the same spot on the return trip, with a hiker still tossing pieces; she knew it was time to ask for help.

Eventually, a helicopter appeared, bringing the sickly sick man to safety. But the experience stuck with Key, that she's walked hundreds of miles in the Grand Canyon and has never encountered hikers whose illness has nothing to do with drought or heat until now. After a member of the unlucky group fell ill later that day, Key began to suspect that a virus was to blame.

Key isn't alone in her story of nauseous woe, as Grand Canyon National Park is currently experiencing an outbreak of a gastrointestinal disease very similar to norovirus. This illness can cause vomiting, diarrhea, cramping, body aches, and mild fever. 

 CDC declared norovirus is "very contagious," and anyone can become infected — the disease can be spread by contact with a sick person, contact with a contaminated surface, or ingestion of contaminated food or drink. While symptoms can become very alarming, norovirus rarely results in death or severe illness.

By June 10, the park knew of 118 people who had contracted the gastrointestinal virus, Grand Canyon News reported. The infection spread to 16 different rides on the Colorado River and into the outback.

Most illnesses were recorded in May, and the latest case was reported on June 2. According to Jan Balsum, chief of communications, partnerships, and external affairs at Grand Canyon National Park's superintendent's office, celiac virus alerts have been issued since May 20.

"We haven't seen this kind of outbreak in about ten years," Balsum said. Balsam herself experienced what she described as an "unusual" prevalence of digestive problems when a woman on a river cruise she recently attended contracted a stomach virus less than 12 hours into the trip. However, the woman does not know whether she has norovirus or another disease, a predicament that illustrates many of the difficulties in investigating the outbreak.

There is a limited amount of time during which stool samples can be collected to confirm norovirus infection, Balsum said. River cruises usually last that critical period, so it is often impossible to accurately diagnose an individual's illness.

The park asks visitors to ensure their water isn't just filtered because point-of-use filters do not kill norovirus. They must be chemically disinfected or boiled. It also asks visitors not to drink from waterfalls, ponds, or streams.

A public health team made up of a variety of state and federal offices is investigating the outbreak. Belsoum explained that the Colorado River and the country are unconnected regions, adding to the ambiguity of the cases.

"[Officials] were following up on interviews with the flight participants who got sick," Balsam said. "They were taking stool scans to try to determine if that was the case or not."

 An official with the National Park Service's Office of Public Health described the outbreak as a "rising intestinal disease" and said the investigation "will consider all potential sources. The source of the disease is unknown at this time."

People have taken to social media to share their stories of flights taken due to vomiting and have long posted stories of hikes that went wrong.

One man wrote of vomiting in the middle of the night, with the bout of nausea lasting from 1 am to 5 am.

He wrote, "Let me tell you, being sick and weak and hiking 1,200 feet in 1.5 miles is not a movement."

In another message posted in May in the "Grand Canyon Hikers" Facebook group, a woman notified others of the norovirus outbreak. She described the illness soon after she left the valley.

"I couldn't have hiked or taken care of myself if I had started vomiting in the valley," she wrote. GC public health officials are following up on the situation. It looks like a big one."

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