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As Norovirus Rages, A Robot Named 'Vomiting Larry' Gets His Closeup

The lab robot affectionately called "Vomiting Larry" has gone viral. His image and videoed vomiting for science are all over the Web.

His moment of fame comes after more than a million people have been sickened by norovirus in Britain. A strain that's new to people's immune systems might be one reason for the uptick in cases, though it's not entirely clear why there has been a surge.

Norovirus causes stomach distress — and then some — that can last a few days. Sometimes called the stomach flu, despite no connection at all to the respiratory influenza virus, norovirus is notorious.

It spreads like mad in NBA locker rooms, puts the kibbosh on luxury cruises and hitches rides on all kinds of food.

Enter Larry, who's on YouTube now and has also had a taste of fame on the BBC.

Developed by the U.K.'s Health and Safety Laboratory, Larry has helped scientists see that a little vomit can go a long way. He vomits on command. And his barf can be tagged with fluorescent dye that makes it easy for scientists to track.

Only a few norovirus particles carried in an airborne droplet of vomit are enough to infect someone. When that person gets diarrhea or, like Larry, vomits, he spreads the virus around some more.

"Noroviruses are like the Ferrari of the virus field," University of Cambridge virologist Ian Goodfellow told the BBC. "They infect people very, very quickly, and they spread very, very quickly." By the time you know you're sick, chances are you've already infected a lot of other people.

There are no drugs or vaccines against norovirus. Norovirus, Goodfellow says, is a tough bug to study. "We still don't have the ability to grow human noroviruses in the laboratory," he says.

So your best defense remains washing your hands well with soap and water. If someone gets sick, disinfect contaminated surfaces with bleach and wash the dirty laundry thoroughly.

Copyright 2013 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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