If the latest figures released today from the Health Protection Agency are anything to go by, this year has seen a sharp rise in reported cases of the winter vomiting bug. Figures released in England and Wales have topped a million, with 3,538 lab-confirmed cases up to 16 December – but for that it is estimated that at least another 288 go unreported. And there is more bad news as this figure is a whopping 83% higher than at this stage last year. In 2011 there were 1,934 cases reported at this time of year. In addition, there were 70 hospital outbreaks in the two weeks up to December 23rd, compared with 61 in the previous fortnight.
The outbreak of the winter vomiting bug has also started earlier this year compared to last year, with cases being reported in December rather than January. John Harris, an expert in norovirus from the HPA said: “The number of laboratory confirmed cases has risen once again as it appears that we have seen the rise in cases that usually begins in January start a little earlier than we normally expect. Norovirus is very contagious, and very unpleasant.” This is a pattern that has been replicated throughout Europe.
The winter vomiting bug or norovirus is a highly contagious short-term illness that causes severe vomiting and diarrhoea. It is easily spread through contact with infected surfaces or objects, contact with an infected person, or by consuming contaminated food or water. The virus is unpredictable and no two outbreak years are ever the same. The HPA stress that the rise in cases could simply be down to the fact there was an earlier peak in cases – or that figures will be higher overall this year.
The norovirus “year” – the date from which experts start to count cases – begins in July and runs to the following June. Laboratory confirmed reports represent a small proportion of the actual number of cases because most people do not see a doctor – and therefore their case is not recorded.
He said the best way to prevent the spread of the disease was to wash hands and stay away from hospitals, schools and care homes if unwell because closed environments were particularly prone to outbreaks “which can cause severe disruption”.
A Department of Health spokeswoman said: “The NHS is well prepared for the winter. No A&Es have had to close so far this winter and we are providing additional funding to the NHS to help it cope with the added pressure that the winter brings. Our weekly published figures show the number of beds closed across the NHS due to norovirus symptoms is around 2.4%. This compares to 2.9% of beds that were closed during the peak of norovirus cases last winter.”
If you have a family member or friend who is suffering from the norovirus, make sure they are comfortable but remember that here is no specific treatment for norovirus illness, and you will have to let the illness run its course. Stay at home and drink plenty of fluids to avoid dehydration. That means regular sips of water or fruit juice, even they are feeling sick. Adults can take rehydration drinks and anti-diarrhoea medicines available from pharmacies. Anti-diarrhoea medicines are not suitable for children.
To avoid infecting other people, wash your hands regularly. Stay at home for 48 hours after the last sign of symptoms, and do not prepare food for others for three days after the last sign of symptoms.
The vast majority of those infected make a full recovery within two days. But particular care must be taken with the very young and older people who catch norovirus, as they are at higher risk of dehydration. The very young and the elderly may need a hospital visit. Typically the virus should run its course in 48 hours.
Source: BBC News