Vomit research may not be glamorous, but two Clemson researchers who are working with the federal government to combat stomach bug outbreaks among the elderly are convinced that advancements in this field could be lifesaving.
An estimated 2 million people live in long-term facilities across the United States and most of them are classified as elderly. This makes them more susceptible to contagious illnesses, especially norovirus, commonly called "stomach flu."
These facts inspired Clemson University professors Angela Fraser and Xiuping Jiang to cater their new norovirus research project to the needs of residents in long-term care facilities.
“I just think that those of us who are fortunate need to look out for those who are vulnerable,” Fraser said. “And this is a vulnerable population.”
One of the main goals of their new project, which recently received more than $1 million in funding from the federal Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, is to come up with easy-to-implement, cost-efficient and effective vomit cleanup procedures for soft surfaces. The hope is that this will directly combat the high percentage of norovirus outbreaks in long-term care facilities and places with similar environments.
The study, which has funding for three years, will be done in partnership with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Emory University and the University of Illinois-Chicago.
"This is the early stage," Jiang said.
Often referred to as the "stomach bug" or "stomach flu," norovirus is a contagious illness that causes vomiting and diarrhea. According to the CDC, outbreaks of the virus are incredibly common considering how easily it spreads through people from food and surfaces. For long-term care facilities, where the CDC estimates more than 60 percent of norovirus outbreaks occur, it is even more of a problem.
In past studies on proper vomit cleanup, Fraser and Jiang learned that there were gaps in the research, particularly when it came to the proper disinfectant to use on soft services to prevent the spread of diseases.
Chlorine bleach, the most commonly used disinfectant, mainly worked on hard surfaces and could rarely be used on soft surfaces like carpets and couches. One of the areas they realized could benefit the most from this information was long-term care facilities.
“Long-term facilities want to create a very homelike environment, so they have lots of carpet around in comparison to hospitals and other environments,” Jiang said.
They also, of course, tend to have a high number of older adults.
“That’s people’s living environment,” Fraser said. “Do you really want people to be living where everything is just cinder block or smooth walls?”
She said because older patients are more likely to have chronic diseases, their immune systems are typically weakened as well. This means that when these older adults get infected with diseases like the norovirus, there can be a more severe expression of the disease compared to someone younger. Because of all of these factors, some view the study as even more imperative.
“It would be invaluable for us to have that (research),” said Donna Cook, executive director of the Charleston Area Senior Center. “If we can be doing (cleaning) a better way, that’s definitely important.”
Though Cook said that they don't really have an issue with norovirus, she is glad to hear that the researchers are prioritizing the highly vulnerable community who are always in need of support. At the Charleston Area Senior Center, she said that at least 20 to 25 percent of the seniors that come through the center have no one to support them.
“Most people assume everyone has a family support network," she said. “(Seniors are) kind of quiet about what’s going on with them.”
For Fraser, she said she felt charged to do the study because older adults tend to be a highly overlooked community in the United States. She said most deaths associated with norovirus occur in the older adult community. She said she feels compelled to identify a solution.
“My primary aim, as I move closer to being in that population group, is to make sure that these people are protected," she said.