They're calling it the flu, but the illness that struck President George Bush today was more likely a stomach virus transmitted by a food handler who failed to use proper bathroom hygiene, a Maryland public health official said today.
"Actually, while it's commonly known as the stomach 'flu', it's a misnomer to call it the flu," said Dr. Betsy L. Thompson, medical epidemiologist with the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. "It's caused by different types of viruses, but not by the influenza virus."
The "real" influenza does not have the gastro-intestinal symptoms Bush experienced.
Thompson based her comments on early news reports that Bush was suffering from gastroenteritis. She had no direct knowledge of Bush's condition, she said, but found herself "kind of chuckling" when White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater and reporters began referring to the illness as the "flu."
"If it's viral gastroenteritis, it's usually a short-term illness, 24 to 48 hours," she said. "And it can even be fewer hours than that, with a complete recovery."
The viruses responsible for gastroenteritis can include a rotavirus, adenovirus, astrovirus or, in the United States, a Norwalk virus. The culprits vary in different regions of the world.
All of them are most commonly acquired by eating something that has been handled by someone carrying the virus who failed to wash his hands properly after using the toilet, Thompson said.
"It's a fecal-oral route of transmission," she said. It could be picked up from door handles and handshakes, but food handlers are the most common source.
The onset of symptoms -- vomiting, such as the president experienced, and often diarrhea as well -- is rapid and typically comes one to three days after contact with the virus. Bush apparently had complained of nausea while standing in a receiving line just prior to the state dinner where he became ill.
"It comes on suddenly and is gone almost as quickly," usually in 24 to 48 hours, she said. White House officials said Bush would resume his schedule by tomorrow.
Thompson said Bush's apparent fainting spell after vomiting at his dinner table may have been what doctors call a "vaso-vagal reaction." That is a stimulation of the vagus nerve by the stomach's contractions that can in turn cause temporary changes in the circulatory system that result in a brief loss of consciousness.
"It can occur with a change of posture with some people, or with vomiting or defecation," she said. "But it's not serious. It's inconsequential fainting and not of any medical concern."