THOUSANDS of people have been laid low after a fourfold increase in a violent stomach bug which is sweeping the country.
The highly infectious winter vomiting bug has led to a big rise in patients calling out their GPs and has hit hotel residents as well as several hospitals and nursing homes.
A fourfold increase in cases has been recorded by the disease watchdog compared with normal levels of the infection -- putting the outbreaks at one of their highest levels in years.
Doctors have warned that the elderly, pregnant women and small children are particularly vulnerable.
The HSE Head of Health Protection, Dr Kevin Kelleher, warned that special care should be taken with those most at risk.
He said: "Elderly people and infants should ensure they get plenty of fluids and a minority may have to be hospitalised."
Dr Paul McKeown of the Health Protection Surveillance Centre (HPSC) said a very infectious form of the virus was causing the outbreaks.
The infection causes severe vomiting and diarrhoea and can start with a sudden onset of explosive illness.
The virus is very resilient and can survive for weeks in the environment -- living on door and toilet handles, remote controls, light switches and worktops.Schools have also been hit by the bug and residents of two hotels have been the victims of outbreaks.
HPSC officials have been able to track the surge based on a tiny fraction of cases which are sent to laboratories for testing.
Normally, around 50 cases of the bug a week are officially recorded in this way – but recently that has jumped to 190.
The real number of victims runs into thousands as people recover at home.
It also has a major knock-on effect for businesses as staff take sick leave.
Workers remain infectious for up to 48 hours after the symptoms of the illness pass.
"Handwashing with soap and water – especially after contact with someone who is ill and after using the toilet – is also extremely important, particularly if you are or have been sick.
"When it gets into hospitals or nursing homes, it can cause serious disruption, for example, ward closures, cancelled operations and added pressure on emergency departments."
He added: "It is important that ill and vulnerable patients in these settings do not become more ill than they already are."