BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — Weather data, satellite imagery and computer modeling could provide tools to forecast a norovirus outbreak in oysters in the Gulf of Mexico, an LSU researcher says.

LSU associate professor Zhiqiang Deng is working on a computer model that obtains information from the state Department of Health and Hospitals, weather and satellite images from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and information from other federal agencies.

The Advocate reports ( the goal is to spot conditions that contribute to the formation of norovirus outbreaks along the coast and try to forecast where they will occur.

Norovirus can cause a "stomach flu-like" illness that usually starts about a day or two after eating or drinking something with the virus. Symptoms include nausea, vomiting, diarrhea and stomach cramping, and sometimes people have a low-grade fever, chills, headache, muscle ache and fatigue, according to health officials. Symptoms can last a day or two.

The norovirus can contaminate oysters, which happens mostly in winter months. Heavy rains that wash fecal coliform into the water or boaters who dump fecal matter overboard can lead to the norovirus forming in the water. That virus can then be passed to feeding oysters and transferred to humans when eaten.

Deng said he hopes a forecast model would help regulators predict where and when an outbreak might occur so officials could prevent consumption of oysters from such areas instead of waiting until people get sick.

The project started in 2010 after a spring in which there were three norovirus outbreaks that left 39 people ill, Deng said.

"Because of that outbreak, we realized oyster contamination was something that needs to be addressed," he said.

Currently, the state health department currently tests oyster areas along the coast for the norovirus, but that process takes time and money, Deng said. His hope, he said, is that this forecast model could narrow the areas where conditions for norovirus exist.

Deng and his research team applied for a NASA public health program grant and received $400,000 for a two-year project to develop the model, he said.

The project looks at what factors trigger the contamination, how the different factors combine to create a contaminated area then monitors near real-time changes in the environmental factors.

"The model can predict changes in bacterial levels," Deng said.

Currently, the model just looks at the oyster areas around the Mississippi River, but it could be expanded in the future to include other areas, he said.


Information from: The Advocate,