Winter virus 'serious health problem'

WINTER vomiting virus is becoming a “serious health problem” in Suffolk after more than 680 people were infected in a year, health experts have warned.

WINTER vomiting virus is becoming a “serious health problem” in Suffolk after more than 680 people were infected in a year, health experts have warned.

The latest annual report from Suffolk's Health Protection Team reveals there were 30 outbreaks of the extremely contagious bug in the community in 2005.

It is even having a “big impact” on the local economy, with more people having to take time off work sick.

But Gillian Brown, health protection nurse at the unit, said the 689 people ill last year could just be the “tip of the iceberg”, as few people report having the virus. And she is now urging suspected sufferers to take more precautions to avoid spreading the virus in the future.

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The figures also do not include the number of cases in Suffolk's hospitals and these accounted for a further eight outbreaks.

The Norovirus is thought to be behind most of the outbreaks of diarrhoea and vomiting (D and V).

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Ms Brown said: “Norovirus causes outbreaks all over - in hospitals, schools, care homes, military establishments - and it is so difficult to control as it is so infectious. It can survive in the environment and can go a long way.

“It is a big, big problem as people have to take time off. Children cannot go to school, parents have to take time off to look after them and then they get it and have to take time off as well. It has a big impact from an economical point of view, even though it is not in itself a serious infection.”

Dr Torbjorn Sundkvist, consultant in communicable disease control at the unit, described it as a “serious health problem” in his annual report, after the number of reported outbreaks in the county rose by 10 from 2004.

But the health protection team said it was difficult to compare the figures and determine whether this was a significant increase. This was because raised awareness may have paid a part in the rise, people rarely go to the doctors with the short-lived symptoms and samples cannot always be taken from all cases to confirm the virus.

Ms Brown explained: “The majority of it is not reported to us. We just get the tip of the iceberg.”

Ipswich Hospital experienced three outbreaks of diarrhoea and/or vomiting associated with Norovirus.

In January 2005 five wards were affected and three had to be entirely closed for between two and five days. Two wards had one bay of six beds closed for three days each.

Then in February three wards were affected and all had two bays closed for two days. In March, one ward was affected. One bay was closed for five days and another was closed for six days.

In West Suffolk Hospital during 2005 there were also three outbreaks in January, April and December but the trust had no further information on how many wards were affected.

In the Waveney area there were three outbreaks, with two in Suffolk. Between January 14 and 28 seven wards were affected at James Paget Hospital and one ward at Lowestoft, with a total of 88 patients ill.

Then between April 6 and 14, three wards were affected at the James Paget when 14 patients had the winter vomiting virus. Between November 22 and December 5, 74 patients were ill on five wards at the James Paget and two wards at Lowestoft.

Winter vomiting virus also caused nearly a quarter of pupils to be off sick from Manningtree High School in Essex in January this year.

Jan Rowsell, spokeswoman for Ipswich Hospital, said: “As the wards in the trust are divided into smaller bays we try to take advantage of this whenever possible and only close affected bays to admissions/transfers rather than closing the whole ward.”

A spokeswoman for the West Suffolk Hospital said it was often the case that D and V comes into the hospital from the community.

She added: “D and V is a problem every winter and every year we put in measures to limit its spread to other patients, visitors and staff, including isolating patients who have been admitted with the illness.”

The Suffolk Health Protection Team is now issuing advice in a bid to stem the increase in Norovirus, which generally lasts around 24 to 48 hours.

It said people should not visit relatives at home, in hospitals or care homes if they are unwell so the virus can be contained. They should also not attend school or work.

The best control measure is hand washing and bathrooms should be kept clean with bleach.

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