Foodborne viruses

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Norovirus (NoV) and Hepatitis A (HAV) are two of the main viruses that are transmitted through food. These viruses may be present in certain foods such as bivalve molluscs (mussels, oysters, etc.), but can also enter our food through irrigation water (e.g. red fruit) or contaminated food preparation equipment. We analyse the presence of these viruses in the food on shelves in stores and on food involved in foodborne intoxications and infections. We also investigate the role of other viruses that can be transmitted through food (e.g. Hepatitis E).

Norovirus is one of the main causes of viral gastroenteritis. The disease is also better known to the general public as gastric flu, and leads to vomiting, diarrhoea and mild fever. The infection occurs mainly through faeces that enter the mouth and transmission is principally from person to person. As a result, NoV outbreaks are mainly reported in care facilities and nursing homes, hospitals but also in crèches and in schools. During outbreaks, which may or may not be food-related, we examine environmental samples and human samples for the presence of Norovirus. We also monitor the evolution of the virus by determining the variant types of the virus.

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Our work analysing viruses in food is mainly commissioned by the Federal Agency for the Safety of the Food Chain (FASFC) and the Federal Public Service (FPS) for Health. We are accredited as a National Reference Laboratory (NRL) for Foodborne viruses. The detection of Norovirus and Hepatitis A is based on a real-time PCR method following extraction of the viral RNA, in accordance with an internationally standardised (ISO) method and under ISO 17025 accreditation. As a reference laboratory, we monitor trends in the detection of emerging viruses and provide training in this area for Belgium’s official control laboratories.

Where disease outbreaks and foodborne disease outbreaks are concerned, we mainly work with the infectious disease control service of the Belgian Agency for Care and Health (AZG — Agentschap Zorg- en Gezondheid), The Belgian Agency for a Good Quality of Life (AViQ — Agence pour une vie de Qualité) and the Common Community Commission (COCOM). We are also accredited as a National Reference Centre (NRC) for Norovirus and detect gastrointestinal viruses (including Norovirus) for clinical laboratories. Variant determination is used to monitor the evolution of the virus over time. The diagnosis of Norovirus in human stools is based on RNA detection using a real-time PCR method under ISO 15189 accreditation. The diagnosis helps general practitioners and hospital hygienists to get a clear picture of the transmission routes so that specific measures can be taken to prevent the further spread of the infection.

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