Vomiting Robot Helps Researchers Understand Norovirus

In a study that could make you lose your own lunch, researchers have created a projectile-vomiting robot to research how far the highly contagious norovirus particles travel when somebody with the illness throws up.

Norovirus causes severe projectile vomiting and diarrhea in those infected for up to three days starting 12 to 48 hours after exposure. The symptoms can last up to 62 hours. On average, someone infected with norovirus spreads it to about seven other people through direct touch or contaminated surfaces and food. The virus sickens as many as 21 million Americans each year, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, leading to 70,000 hospitalizations and 800 deaths.

Researchers at the Occupational Hygiene Unit at the Health and Safety Laboratory in Britain created "Vomiting Larry" to get a better idea of how the virus is able to spread so easily and quickly from person to person.

Vomiting Larry consists of a cylinder body filled with water mixed with florescent liquid, a head with an open mouth, and a pump to shoot the water through the mouth, similar to projectile vomit.

After Larry throws up the florescent water, researchers measure how far the airborne vomit particles travel.

"Under normal lighting, you can only see the main area where Larry actually vomited," Catherine Makison-Booth, Larry's creator, told ABC News. "However, under UV light, you can see the particles spread much further than that - in excess of three meters."

That means the area that needs to be sanitized when someone with norovirus throws up is bigger than previously thought.

Earlier studies indicate the virus could live for 12 days or longer in the environment where somebody vomited, so the entire area needs to be cleaned with bleach as soon as possible after the vomiting occurred in order to stem the spread of the illness.

Because norovirus spreads quickly and easily from person to person, it can rapidly infect hundreds of people in a short amount of time.

"It can knock out a whole school, hospital, military base or off-shore rig, and there is currently no vaccine for it, so you really just have to let it run its course," Makison-Booth said.

Makison-Booth said she doesn't know of any illness that spreads quite the way norovirus does, because it takes so little for a person to contract it.

"One only needs to ingest 20 to 25 viruses to become ill, compared to the hundreds of viruses it takes to contract influenza," Makison-Booth told ABC. "When someone with norovirus vomits once, that's millions of viruses."

Norovirus is also resistant to many typical cleaning products, like the kinds generally used to clean kitchens and bathrooms, as well as normal hand sanitizer. In order to really clean up after someone with norovirus throws up, "bleach is definitely the way to go," Makison-Booth said.

People infected with norovirus should try to stay away from other people for at least 48 hours after the symptoms stop.

The studies could soon become especially relevant, with news that norovirus cases in England this winter are up 72% from last year, according to the Health Protection Agency, including on ships making transatlantic crossing to the United States.