NBC News
updated 2/14/2004 6:08:27 PM ET 2004-02-14T23:08:27

The Centers for Disease Control reports that out of the 23 million people who get sick each year from food borne illnesses, almost half of them are blamed on Norwalk viruses.

It was just a quick stop at a McDonalds to grab a bite. These people never dreamed they might have picked up a dangerous virus. 

“It's just uncontrollable nausea,” says Steve Ray. “Even after you've vomited to the point where there is literally nothing left in your system your stomach starts cramping. “

The local hospital in Erwin, Tenn., was flooded with sick people, over 100 people infected with the Norwalk virus.

The CDC says that it is likely sick workers at this McDonalds passed the virus along. But McDonalds says they aren't solely responsible because there were other reports of Norwalk in the area just two months before the Erwin outbreak.

Dr. Robert Tauxe of the CDC estimates almost half of all food borne illnesses are Norwalk related.

“The Norwalk virus family has emerged as an important public health problem,” Dr. Tauxe.

And Norwalk isn’t just linked to restaurants. Across the U.S., there are reports of Norwalk outbreaks on cruise ships, schools and nursing homes. It's hard to diagnose but Tauxe says Norwalk can start out like a bad bout of the flu. For some it's a killer, and perhaps several hundred die each year. Right now there's no cure and it's highly contagious.

“It spreads from one person to the next, or contaminated surfaces,” says Dr. Tauxe.

How do you cut your risk?

“Careful hand washing, disinfecting, making sure people who are ill are not preparing food for others,” says Dr. Tauxe.

And he says if you do get sick, get checked out by a doctor, before the symptoms get worse.

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