‘Vomiting Machine’ Reveals How the Leading Cause of Food Poisoning Spreads

Sure, it sounds gross, but scientists hope studying how norovirus goes airborne will help prevent it.
Aug 20, 2015·
Culture and education editor Liz Dwyer has written about race, parenting, and social justice for several national publications. She was previously education editor at Good.

Your body aches, you have a fever, and your stomach hurts so much that you’re doubled over in pain while sitting on the toilet. “Stomach flu,” you write in an email to your boss, explaining why you won’t be in to work.

You don’t actually have influenza—chances are you’ve been infected with norovirus, a highly contagious family of more than 30 related viruses that tend to be picked up from contaminated food or close contact. The sous chef in the kitchen at your favorite restaurant forgot to lather up after using the restroom, rubs some spice on a steak, and voilà, you get food poisoning.

But say a kitchen staff member has norovirus, pops a few pills, comes to work anyway, and ends up barfing. Can people nearby get sick, even if it seems like vomit hasn’t gotten on them? Thanks to the Vomiting Machine, a device created by food researchers at North Carolina State University, we now have the—albeit gross and horrifying—answer.

When one person vomits, the aerosolized virus particles can get into another persons mouth and, if swallowed, can lead to infection, Lee-Ann Jaykus, a professor of food science at the university and the study’s coauthor, said in a statement. But those airborne particles could also land on nearby surfaces like tables and door handles, causing environmental contamination. And norovirus can hang around for weeks, so anyone that touches that table and then puts their hand to their mouth could be at risk for infection.

Figuring out how norovirus works is a priority, as it’s the most common cause of food-borne-disease outbreaks in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. An estimated 19 million to 21 million people are sickened every year because of the germs. About 71,000 Americans end up having to go to the hospital, and as many as 800 of them die annually.

So Jaykus and her team have worked since 2012 to build a clay-faced machine that can mimic the way people vomit. The boxed-in device is equipped with a digestive system—an esophagus and a stomach constructed from tubes and a pressure chamber. Because it’s too dangerous to experiment with live norovirus, the scientists tested out a variety of liquids and studied what can happen if they’re spewed from a sick person’s mouth. You can see how the machine works in the video above—dont worry, theres no vomit, fake or otherwise, in it.

This machine may seem odd, but its helping us understand a disease that affects millions of people, said Jaykus. This is work that can help us prevent or contain the spread of norovirus—and theres nothing odd about that.

Its not clear whether this research can be used to study how other infectious diseases that cause vomiting, such as Ebola, are spread. In the meantime, if you feel like you have a bug and might barf, it seems you have a legitimate excuse for skipping work.