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.”
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.