When most people think of disease researchers, they think of heavily-masked scientists cordoning off contagious patients before they spread disease to innocent bystanders — you know, like in CSI or Contagion. They don’t think “Vomiting Larry.” Yet when it comes to battling the current, especially nasty outbreak of norovirus, this robotic head is on the forefront of medical research.
If you have been lucky enough not to catch it, the virus formerly known as the Norwalk virus is a stomach bug that can make you ill so quickly that Ian Goodfellow, a researcher at the University of Cambridge, called it “the Ferrari of viruses” in an interview with CBS News. “It can sweep through an environment very, very quickly. You can be feeling quite fine one minute and within several hours suffer continuous vomiting and diarrhea,” he said. The disease infects about 21 million people annual and renders them all completely miserable for two to three days. In extreme cases it can be fatal — the norovirus kills about 800 people every year.
The Centers for Disease Control report that the bug has caused 140 local outbreaks in the U.S. since September, and that was before a new strain arrived — highly contagious, although not as deadly — and prompted infections to jump thirty percent in December. The norovirus has the unfortunate ability to be able to survive outside the human body for long periods of time and remain viable long after most viruses would be rendered harmless. That means that whoever is tasked with cleaning up after a sufferer has to do a very thorough job; otherwise the stomach virus can easily spread to its next victim.
That’s where Vomiting Larry comes in.
Created by British researcher Catherine Makison-Booth to determine how the norovirus spreads via emesis — a.k.a. projectile vomiting — Larry’s unique skill set allows Makison-Booth to study spray patterns and determine the best way to effectively clean up afterwards in order to stop the spread of the virus. She expects this to be especially useful in battling outbreaks in close quarters where the disease spreads rapidly, such as cruise ships, oil rigs and nursing homes.
Let’s hope that Vomiting Larry can work quickly. This month, a norovirus outbreak on the Queen Mary 2 took out 204 passengers and 16 crew members, according to the CDC’s Vessel Sanitation Program.