Norwalk (NV) and other small round structured viruses (SRSVs) have been identified as common causes of gastroenteritis. Outbreaks of Norwalk gastroenteritis have been associated with contaminated drinking water and food such as oysters and salads. The cloning and sequencing of the NV genome has made it possible to detect NV and related viruses by the reverse transcription-polymerase chain reaction (RT-PCR). We applied RT-PCR to detect SRSVs in faecal specimens from two gastroenteritis outbreaks in South Africa, designated “Christmas” and “Grootbrak” and were able to detect SRSVs in all of the three specimens from the Christmas outbreak and in two of 16 specimens from the Grootbrak outbreak. The RT-PCR procedure used appeared to be more sensitive for the detection of SRSVs in patient stool specimens than immune electron microscopy and NV antigen detection by enzyme linked immunosorbent assay. The RT-PCR procedure proved suitable for the detection of SRSVs in seeded samples of sewage, sewage sludge, river water, and tap water. However, sensitivity was lower for seeded samples of sewage and sludge than for tap water, which indicates interference by high levels of organic matter. The RT-PCR procedure was also used to show that small numbers of SRSVs can successfully be recovered from large volumes of water by means of a glass wool adsorption-elution method. Since no practical method is available for quantitation of the small numbers of SRSVs concerned, it was not possible to evaluate the efficiency of recovery. Although no SRSVs have been detected by direct testing of sewage and sludge samples, the results obtained in this study show that RT-PCR detection of SRSVs in sewage and polluted water environments is feasible, and that small numbers of the viruses can, like many other enteric viruses, successfully be recovered by means of a glass wool adsorption-elution method.

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