THREE quarters of a million people have been struck down by the ‘winter vomiting bug’ and dozens of hospital wards closed in the worst start to the norovirus season on record.
In the last two weeks, 43 hospital wards across England and Wales have been closed with the total number shut since the outbreak began now standing at 335.
Some schools have been forced to close with between a quarter and a half of pupils off sick and businesses have been severely affected by the outbreak of the highly infectious virus.
Figures released yesterday by the Health Protection Agency indicate some 68,000 people have been hit by the bug in the last week alone.
It means that almost twice as many people have been affected so far this autumn and winter, compared to the same stage in 2011.
This is the biggest early-season outbreak of norovirus, which is spread by poor hand hygiene, since at least 2007, when the HPA started collecting data in its current format.
During a typical winter some two million people are usually affected by norovirus. However, infections almost always peak in January and February. This winter it has struck remarkably early, which could be a harbinger of a record norovirus season.
Staff at Wimbledon Chase Primary School in south west London said an “unprecedented” number were off sick on Tuesday, with 140 out of 639 absent.
So far this winter schools have also had to shut for a period in Cambridgeshire - with a Fenlands primary seeing half of pupils off ill at one stage - London, Plymouth and elsewhere.
Passengers on P&O’s cruise liner Oriana have threatened a mutiny after they say more than 300 were hit by the vomiting bug which has turned the cruise into a ‘nightmare’.
Hugh Pennington, emeritus professor of bacteriology at Aberdeen University, said this year’s large early outbreak had probably been given a spur by the cold November.
He said: “That drives people inside, which helps the virus to be transmitted.”
It could also have got off to “an early start”, he said.
“Once the virus has got off to a good start it feeds off itself until it has run out of steam.”
But at this stage it was impossible to tell if this winter would end up being a “bad year” overall, or just an “early year” which fizzled out early.
In raw statistics, the HPA figures show that the number of laboratory confirmed cases of norovirus went up from 2,394 on November 25 to 2,630 on December 2, a rise of 236.
However, most cases go unreported because the vast majority of people do not go to their GP or end up in hospital after contracting the bug.
HPA officials work on the basis that for every one laboratory confirmed case, there are an additional 288 unreported cases.
Although there have been more cases reported in the latest weekly figures, they are down on the previous week, when there were 327 confirmed cases.
However, John Harris, an expert on norovirus at the HPA, warned that this could just be a short term drop, as the “bulk” of cases usually came after Christmas.
He said: “People should be vigilant in their hygiene and we would like to remind anyone who has typical symptoms suggestive of norovirus infection to avoid visiting friends or relatives in hospital or care homes.
“Norovirus infection in hospitals is very disruptive as it can lead to ward closures.”
The virus spreads quickly from person to person and is particularly prevalent in winter, although outbreaks can occur at any time of year.
It causes fever, nausea, diarrhoea, and vomiting. Abdominal cramps are common as well.
Symptoms usually last between a day and five days. In most people the virus is “self limiting” and they make a full recovery, but among the old and frail it can be lethal.
Every year millions of people across Britain are affected by it.
On average, some 3,000 people in England have to be admitted to hospital because of every year, while it kills about 80. Like flu, there are winters when it is very prevalent and others when it is less so.
The virus is spread from person to person by what doctors call the “faecal oral route”.
Consequently, thorough hand washing during times of outbreak is essential.
Those who are preparing or handling food should be especially vigilant.
It is known to spread very fast between those living or working in close proximity, for example in schools, hospitals and care homes, offices, hotels and cruise liners.
Stephen Adams Telegraph.co.uk