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Perhaps best known for causing chaos on cruise ships and at Chipotle, the gastrointestinal disease norovirus may contribute to tens of billions of dollars of economic loss worldwide, a new study finds.

Why it matters:

There is currently no vaccine or treatment for norovirus, which sickens nearly 700 million people annually. Though some 200,000 people die of the virus annually, for the majority of sufferers it’s not that bad of an illness. However, researchers wanted to capture the lost productivity that days of sickness caused.


The nitty gritty:

Researchers used World Health Organization estimates and computer models to calculate the direct medical costs of norovirus, as well as economic losses that come from things like sick individuals taking time off from work. Those come out at about $4.2 billion and $60.3 billion, respectively, every year.

“This suggests that there is a substantial need for a vaccine,” said Dr. Bruce Y. Lee, an associate professor of international health at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, and senior author on the study published Tuesday in PLoS ONE.

Lee pointed out that since the costs associated with norovirus are so significant, a vaccine would not have to be perfect in order to make an impact.


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But keep in mind:

When comparing the cost of norovirus to the cost of other diseases, it’s important to take into account how each of the numbers was derived, said Lee-Ann Jaykus, a professor at North Carolina State University and the scientific director of the NoroCORE project, a multi-institution collaboration in which two of this study’s authors are involved. There isn’t one correct way to interpret the numbers, she said.

What’s next?

More research is needed in order to develop and deploy a vaccine, Lee said. For example, norovirus is often underreported, making it difficult to know how to target interventions.

The bottom line:

There is still much work to be done, but this study indicates a norovirus vaccine could be a valuable public health investment.