Tracing an Infectious Virus Through the NBA

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Gary W. Green / Orlando Sentinel / Getty Images

Orlando Magic's Dwight Howard (Center) was among the players affected by the Virus

If, or when, the NBA season does resume after the lockout, teams will have to address another important off-the-court issue: infectious illness.

According to a new report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) Division of Viral Diseases, an outbreak of norovirus, a highly contagious bug that causes gastroenteritis, left at least 24 players and staff members from 13 NBA teams with symptoms like vomiting and diarrhea in 2010.

The CDC launched its investigation immediately after reading media reports of a “stomach virus” that had affected 20 NBA players from 13 teams located in 11 states between Nov. 28 and Dec. 8. The CDC did not provide the names of players or teams involved in the investigation, but during that time, the Orlando Magic, for example, sent four players home from a road trip because of a stomach virus, including All-Star center Dwight Howard. David West of the New Orleans Hornets was also sidelined with a virus. “We’ve seen this in athletic settings in the past,” says Dr. Rishi Desai, the lead CDC researcher for the investigation. “However, it’s never been seen in professional settings.”

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For its report, the CDC contacted team physicians from all 30 teams in the NBA, to assess whether any players or staff had gastroenteritis symptoms between Nov. 10 and Dec. 20, 2010. Twenty-seven teams responded. In all, 400 players and 378 staff members were evaluated for symptoms: among these, 21 players (5.3% of those assessed) and 3 staff members (less than 1%) from 13 teams had gastroenteritis. Five stool specimens were collected: four of them tested positive for norovirus.

During the study period, the 13 teams played 49 games against one another. The CDC identified two instances where norovirus could have been transmitted during games. In both cases, players with confirmed norovirus infections had suited up for two “donor” teams, and four NBA staff members and players on two “recipient” teams developed gastroenteritis within 72 hours after the games. None of them had reported similar illnesses in their households during the week before they got sick.

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Noroviruses are responsible for nearly 21 million gastrointestinal illnesses annually. So the type of outbreak that the CDC found in the NBA is not uncommon. Still, the findings are important. “This is an illustrative outbreak,” says Desai. “This illustrates beautifully the point were are trying to make about noroviruses. In a setting where there is a lot of vigilance about disease, you still have outbreaks. So it really points out how infectious it is, and the things we can do to prevent it.”

The message for any athlete, at any level: sick players on your team should be identified, or should self-report their symptoms. Pro players, who spend hours in close quarters on airplanes and hotels and buses as well as locker rooms, are at particular risk. Wash your hands with soap and running water — for reducing contamination on the hands, washing works better than using a hand sanitizer. The CDC recommends that teams and schools disinfect locker rooms and other common areas with a “sodium hypochlorite solution or other product effective against norovirus.”

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These days, the NBA has a particular incentive to keep its players healthy and on the court. When the NBA does resume after the lockout — it has to eventually, correct? — fans will be peeved enough. If they pay a fortune to attend a game, only to find out that their favorite player is sick, that would just add to their irritation.

Sean Gregory is a staff writer at TIME. Find him on Twitter at @seanmgregory. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.