The highly-contagious malady that's been contracted by nearly half the student body at Eagleswood Elementary School prompts warnings from Ocean County health officials to stem any possible spread.

Norovirus, says OCHD spokesperson Leslie Terjesen, causes abrupt and acute gastroenteritis. "The most wcommon symptoms are diarrhea, vomiting, abdominal pain. Some people get fever, chills, headaches, body aches and fatigue," she explains.

The virus commonly crops up in schools and daycare centers, even on cruise ships, she continues, but all of them inevitably trace back to viral contamination.

"It's spread through contaminated food, water, by contact with an affected person, or contamination of environmental surfaces such as door handles."

The virus incubates for 24 to 48 hours before it erupts. Once it begins coursing through the body, she recommends rest and hydration.

"Infected individuals are usually symptomatic for one or two days, but they can shed the virus for up to two weeks after recovering," she notes.

Health officials harbor some concerns about any possible spread beyond Eagleswood. "Children can spread it to their families," Leslie observes. "That's why we always recommend, 'Stay home when you're sick.'"

In the Eagleswood situation, she's advising that children and staff remain home for up to 48 hours after symptoms abate. Food preparers bearing symptoms should stay away for up to 72 hours.

But the most basic preventive step is simply hand-washing. "Use warm water and soap for 15 to 20 seconds. Children need to be taught good hand hygiene practices. They need to wash their hands after using the bathroom, or if someone's changing diapers, or before eating." That goes for those who tend children as well.

The school closed its doors for complete scrubdown and disinfection today. Combined with the Columbus Day closure this Monday, officials have opened a four-day window for the virus to subside.