.More than half a million people struck down with norovirus
More than half a million people have contracted norovirus already this winter as cases are 64 per cent higher than this time last year, official figures show. Laboratory tests have confirmed norovirus in 2,313 cases up until December 2nd. Photo: Alamy
By Rebecca Smith, Medical Editor
2:38PM GMT 04 Dec 2012
The winter vomiting bug has struck early this year with cases running at a level normally seen about a month later in the season.
Calculations show that around 666,144 people have fallen ill so far this winter.
Laboratory tests have confirmed norovirus in 2,313 cases up until December 2nd, compared with 1,412 cases at the same point last year, Health Protection Agency figures show.
As most samples sent for analysis come from care homes and hospitals, officials work on a ratio of one laboratory case probably means there are a further 288 cases among people who do not seek medical treatment and are not tested.
It is not known why the norovirus season has begun early this year and if the poor summer weather may have played a role.
It has been suggested that more sensitive testing methods are now confirming more cases than previously.
Despite the rise in laboratory cases, the number of outbreaks in hospitals has dropped slightly from 53 in the two weeks until November 25 to 40 in the two weeks until December 2nd.
Experts said this was not necessarily a reflection that the season is peaking and that outbreaks do vary throughout the winter.
Norovirus outbreaks can cripple hospital services as staff take sick leave and wards have to be closed to new patients while those already in beds recover and the area is deep cleaned.
Norovirus is highly contagious and can be transmitted by contact with an infected person; by consuming contaminated food or water or by contact with contaminated surfaces or objects.
The virus spreads rapidly in closed environments such as hospitals, schools, nursing and residential homes.
Symptoms include a sudden onset of vomiting and/or diarrhoea. Some people may have a temperature, headache and stomach cramps. The illness usually resolves in one or two days and there are no long-term effects.
Dr Bob Adak, head of the gastrointestinal diseases department at the HPA said: “The norovirus season is always completely unpredictable as it peaks and falls over several months – usually October to April. However, one thing we do know is that every year we will see a large amount of norovirus activity because it is highly contagious.
“The figures for the last two weeks show that there has been a reduction in the numbers of outbreaks in hospitals although there are clearly a lot of other people becoming unwell as we can see from the number of lab reports.
“We would like to remind people to avoid visiting friends or relatives in hospital or care homes if they have symptoms consistent with a norovirus infection as it can lead to ward closures and severe disruption.
“Norovirus is a short-lived unpleasant infection but most people will fully recover in a couple of days. It is important to remain hydrated as you will be losing a lot of fluids due to the symptoms. Over-the-counter medicines can also be useful in reducing headaches and other aches and pains”.
A Department of Health spokesman said: "The NHS is well prepared for the increase in winter related health problems which are typical at this time of year and the latest weekly figures published show that just 1.8 per cent of beds across the NHS are currently closed due to norovirus and diarrhoea and vomiting symptoms.
"Anyone who thinks they may have norovirus should in the first instance call either NHS Direct or their local GP Practice for advice. Please avoid attending A & E as this could spread the illness to vulnerable people and healthcare workers.
"For most people affected by norovirus it is an unpleasant but short lived illness. There is no specific treatment but patients are advised to take plenty of drinks to replace lost fluids."
Advice for the public when managing a bout of norovirus:
Do not visit your GP surgery or local A&E Unit. Norovirus infection is a self-limiting illness and you will recover naturally without treatment. It is, however, important to take plenty of drinks to replace lost fluids.
Use NHS Direct's new diarrhoea and vomiting online health and symptom checker, to get advice on how to manage your symptoms at home or help to access the most appropriate health service visit the NHS Direct website.
Wash hands thoroughly and regularly at all times, but particularly after using the lavatory and before eating.
Do not visit friends or relatives in hospitals or residential care homes as there is a real risk that you would introduce the infection putting vulnerable people at risk.STORY @ THE TELEGRAPH UKhttp://www.telegraph.co.uk/health/healt ... virus.html