Last year, the Washington Alpine Club Lodge near Snoqualmie Pass in Washington witnessed an unsettling event. A large group of hikers, visibly unwell, passed through the lodge, raising concerns about a potential outbreak of illness along the Pacific Crest Trail. The trail, made famous by the 2014 film Wild, is a haven for outdoor enthusiasts, attracting hikers from around the globe. However, the beauty of the wilderness was marred by an outbreak of a gastrointestinal illness, suspected to be norovirus.
As reported by Fox News, the Pacific Crest Trail Association (PCTA) is no stranger to reports of contagious diseases affecting its trail users. “We hear about potential outbreaks from various sources, including social media tags and official health reports,” said a PCTA spokesperson. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recently published an investigation that found at least 27 reports of acute gastroenteritis among hikers, presumed to be norovirus based on common epidemiologic characteristics.
Norovirus is a highly contagious virus that often leads to nausea, vomiting, and diarrhoea. “It’s common in places like cruise ships, restaurants, and healthcare facilities,” said Dr Avinash Ketwaroo, a gastroenterologist and associate professor at Yale School of Medicine.
In August 2022, a volunteer first alerted health authorities about the sick hikers. Arran Hamlet, a CDC epidemic intelligence service officer, was assigned to investigate. After scouring social media platforms like Facebook and Reddit, Hamlet found numerous reports of stomach illnesses among Pacific Crest Trail hikers in Washington. Almost 95% of the hikers surveyed started to become ill within a 73-mile stretch of the trail.
Norovirus is often called the “stomach flu” and causes inflammation of the stomach or intestines. About 80% of those who developed symptoms reported fatigue, vomiting, and diarrhoea. The investigators established that the hikers were likely exposed in an area where latrines and cabin surfaces “likely amplified transmission.”
Samples collected from high-touch surfaces on pit latrines and a rest-stop cabin did not detect norovirus, but human faecal contamination was found. “Hikers may have been getting sick by touching surfaces that had also been touched by someone with norovirus,” Hamlet noted.
Preventing norovirus in remote areas is challenging due to the lack of easy access to soap and clean water. Alcohol-based hand sanitizers, commonly used among hikers, are not effective against norovirus. “The best way to prevent getting sick is to wash your hands with biodegradable soap and water after using the bathroom and before eating,” advised Hamlet.
PCTA recommends boiling or chemically treating water when concerned about norovirus, as most filters do not remove viruses. If symptoms persist for more than several days, immediate medical treatment is advised.
The norovirus outbreak serves as a cautionary tale for hikers and outdoor enthusiasts. While the wilderness offers an escape from the hustle and bustle of daily life, it’s crucial to take necessary precautions to ensure that the experience remains a healthy one.