Norovirus Figures Soar
In December, the Health Protection Agency (HPA) announced that confirmed laboratory reports of norovirus, the winter vomiting bug, were 83% higher than the same time last year, with the outbreak occurring months earlier in the winter season than usual.
It has been estimated that more than a million people were struck down by the illness.
Scientists at the HPA identified a new strain of norovirus, known as Sydney, and believe that the new dominant variant could explain why there was an early start to the UK’s vomiting bug season.
As part of its health surveillance, the HPA carries out genetic testing of norovirus strains from cases in England and Wales. Testing carried out when cases started to rise in October 2012 revealed a cocktail of different strains that were circulating, including Sydney 2012 and another called New Orleans 2009, although no one strain was dominant.
However, the latest testing of the most recent outbreaks has now shown that Sydney 2012 has overtaken all others to become the dominant strain.
A source at the HPA said, “This could be an explanatory factor in why there was an early start to the season.”
Sydney 2012 was first seen in Australia (and takes its name from the place it was first identified) but has also been seen in France, New Zealand and Japan.
Fortunately, the HPA says the new strain does not cause more serious illness than others and the methods of managing cases and outbreaks are the same for any strain of norovirus, such as washing hands thoroughly.
John Harris, an expert in norovirus at the HPA said, “Norovirus activity always varies from year to year and although we might have expected cases to rise again now we have passed the New Year period this hasn’t been the case. We can’t read anything into this fall and don’t know how busy the rest of the season will be.”
Norovirus is considered by HPA to be highly contagious and can be transmitted by:
- Contact with an infected person
- Contact with contaminated surfaces or objects, such as door handles or banister rails
- Consuming contaminated food or water.
The virus spreads particularly rapidly in closed environments such as hospitals, schools and care homes.
Symptoms of norovirus include a sudden onset of vomiting and/or diarrhoea. Some people may have a temperature, headache and stomach cramps. There is no specific treatment for norovirus, which should run its course within a couple of days, and the NHS advice is that sufferers do not generally need to see a doctor but should have plenty to drink and take paracetamol if necessary for fever or pains.
To prevent the virus from spreading further, it is advisable:
- To wash hands frequently
- Not to share towels and flannels
- To disinfect any surfaces that an infected person has touched
Those who have been ill with suspected norovirus are normally advised not to return to their normal places of work or study until at least two days after the symptoms have stopped. For those working with food, it is particularly important during this time they should not prepare food for others and should avoid contact with others.
Organisations such as the hospitals, care homes, schools and leisure facilities should have documented procedures for preventing the spread of infection and responding to a norovirus outbreak. Those working in the healthcare or food industry should follow their employer’s rules on recommended times before returning to work.