When Duke University's football team lost to Florida State's Seminoles on September 19, 1998, they didn't go home sore losers. But the Seminoles sure were sore. As it turned out, even though the Blue Devils hadn't passed the ball very successfully that day, they did pass on to their opponents a nasty virus, causing upset stomach, vomiting and diarrhea. And some clever medical detective work by Christine Moe of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and colleagues recently revealed that the pigskin itself may have carried the virus from one team to the other. "To our knowledge, this is the first report of transmission of a Norwalk-like virus through a contact sport," Moe says. "Normally the virus is food-borne or water-borne." The case study, presented by Moe, lead author Karen Becker and co-workers, appears in today's issue of the New England Journal of Medicine.

To begin their investigation, the scientists interviewed sick players from both teams and collected stool and sera specimens, which they then analyzed with an assay called the reverse transcription polymerase chain reaction to identify the virus. They were able to trace that virus back to turkey sandwiches in box lunches the Duke team ate on September 18 and to two of the restaurant workers where the sandwiches were made. Thirty-six of the Duke players were sick on game day and should not have played. When they did, however, they passed the virus on to 11 players from Florida State. "The new molecular techniques Christine uses allowed us to go beyond basic epidemiology and nail down what happened to these young men," Becker commented. "We soon had an exact fingerprint of the virus that made them sick. Molecular tests even showed that an outbreak of gastroenteritis at a Florida State fraternity a week later had nothing to do with the football players and was caused by a different virus."