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Molecular epidemiology of "Norwalk-like viruses" in outbreaks of gastroenteritis in the United States.

Fecal specimens from 90 outbreaks of nonbacterial gastroenteritis reported to 33 state health departments from January 1996 to June 1997 were examined to determine the importance of and to characterize "Norwalk-like viruses" (NLVs) in these outbreaks. NLVs were detected by reverse transcription-polymerase chain reaction in specimens from 86 (96%) of 90 outbreaks. Outbreaks were most frequent in nursing homes and hospitals (43%), followed by restaurants or events with catered meals (26%); consumption of contaminated food was the most commonly identified mode of transmission (37%). Nucleotide sequence analysis showed great diversity between strains but also provided evidence indicating the emergence of a common, predominant strain. The application of improved molecular techniques to detect NLVs demonstrates that most outbreaks of nonbacterial gastroenteritis in the United States appear to be associated with these viruses and that sequence analysis is a robust tool to help link or differentiate these outbreaks.

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