NIH scientists discover norovirus and other “stomach viruses” can spread through saliva

Enteric virus infected salivary glands from mouse as viewed under a microscope.

A class of viruses known to cause severe diarrheal diseases – including the one famous for widespread outbreaks on cruise ships – can grow in the salivary glands of mice and spread through their saliva, scientists at the National Institutes of Health have discovered. The findings show that a new route of transmission exists for these common viruses, which afflict billions of people each year worldwide and can be deadly. 

The transmission of these so-called enteric viruses through saliva suggests that coughing, talking, sneezing, sharing food and utensils, and even kissing all have the potential for spreading the viruses. The new findings still need to be confirmed in human studies. 

“This is completely new territory because these viruses were thought to only grow in the intestines,” said senior author Nihal Altan-Bonnet, Ph.D., chief of the Laboratory of Host-Pathogen Dynamics at the NHLBI. “Salivary transmission of enteric viruses is another layer of transmission we didn’t know about. It is an entirely new way of thinking about how these viruses can transmit, how they can be diagnosed, and, most importantly, how their spread might be mitigated.” 

The study, funded in part by the NHLBI, appeared in the journal Nature

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