Winter vomiting bug hits 700,000 people as early onset of virus catches NHS 'unawares'
09:35 GMT, 5 December 2012
Increase: Almost 700,000 people have been struck down by norovirus
Hundreds of thousands have been struck down with the winter vomiting bug, according to figures.
The number of confirmed cases of norovirus is already up two-thirds compared to this time last year and experts warn they will only rise further over the next few weeks.
In the last week there have been a further 40 outbreaks of the illness at hospitals and nearly all were forced to close wards or bays to prevent its spread.
Experts say the virus has arrived earlier than usual this year and caught the NHS 'unawares'.
Figures from the Health Protection
Agency show there have been 2,313 confirmed cases – where samples have
been checked in the lab – since July.
This is up 64 per cent compared to the same period last year when there were 1,412 such reports.
And these are only likely to be a fraction of the total as most patients with the virus don't see their GP.
Officials at the HPA say that for every confirmed case there are another 288 in the community which are never tested.
This implies that almost 700,000
adults and children have caught the virus since the summer, although
this is only a very rough estimate.
Meanwhile, the most recent figures
from the Department of Health show that a third of hospitals have had
outbreaks in the last fortnight.
A total of 1,695 hospital patients have caught the bug across 64 out of 144 NHS trusts in England.
The virus causes vomiting, diarrhoea, a headache and a temperature which usually resolve themselves within a couple of days.
But it can be very serious in the elderly or patients who have other underlying illness and causes around 80 deaths a year.
The virus is also extremely contagious is spread when tiny amounts find their way onto food, cutlery, lift buttons or doors.
It causes severe disruption for the NHS each winter as hospitals have to close wards every time a patient is struck down to prevent its spread.
Recent figures from the Department of Health show that a third of hospitals have had outbreaks in the last fortnight
And often staff catch the illness and have to take time off putting even more strain on overstretched wards.
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.
'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.'
Last week Dr Ian Hosein, an expert in infection prevent and control warned that the illness had 'kicked in' so quickly that hospitals had not been prepared.