Norovirus Stomach Bug Hitting US, Spreading around Globe

NEW YORK | Sunday, January 27th, 2013 2:01am EDT

A new strain of stomach bug is taking over in the U.S., health officials say.

Norovirus Stomach Bug Hitting US 01

The dangerous virus causes stomach upset, vomiting and diarrhea. Sometimes it’s diagnosed as the stomach flu, though influenza has nothing to do with it. Photo: Charles D. Humphrey/CDC

Since September, more than 140 cases in the U.S. have been registered caused by the new Sydney strain of norovirus.

Medics warn that it can’t be unusually dangerous while some scientists don’t think it is. However, it is different, and many people might not be able to fight off its gut-wrenching effects, ABC News reports.

The Illness has already reached Japan, Western Europe, and other parts of the world. It was first registered and identified last year in Australia and designated “GII.4 Sydney.”

In the U.S., about 60 percent of norovirus outbreaks were registered, reported the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Thursday.

“We don’t yet know whether there is an increased number of cases this year,” said Jan Vinje, the CDC epidemiologist who runs the network. “Normally the season peaks in January, so it’s a little bit too early to tell.”

Norovirus – also known as Norwalk virus – is highly contagious and often spreads in public places where there are plenty of people, especially during the winter. Last month, 220 people on the Queen Mary II were stricken during a Caribbean cruise.

Sometimes Norwalk virus mistakenly diagnosed as stomach flu as it also causes bouts of vomiting and diarrhea for a few days.

Ian Goodfellow, a researcher at England’s University of Cambridge, calls norovirus ‘the Ferrari of viruses’ for the speed at which it passes through a large group of people.

“It can sweep through an environment very, very quickly. You can be feeling quite fine one minute and within several hours suffer continuous vomiting and diarrhea,” he said.

There’s no particular treatment or vaccine against the spreading virus. Scientists claim that the best way to protect ourselves is good hygiene — wash your hands frequently and well.

A thorough cleanup of the messes with an effective disinfectant, such as a bleach solution, is a must, NPR writes.

Norovirus is tough to beat. Thus, one scientist called it the “Ferrari of the virus field” for its ability to spread rapidly. Fewer than 20 virus particle are enough to infect a man.

Each year, Norwalk viruses result in an estimated 21 million illnesses and 800 deaths, the CDC reports.

For those who catch it, there’s really no medicine. They have nothing to do but ride it out for the day or two of severe symptoms, and guard against dehydration, experts suggest.

The illness even got the attention of comedian Stephen Colbert, who took to Twitter earlier this week: “Remember, if you’re in public and have the winter vomiting bug, be polite and vomit into your elbow.”

As The Washington Post explains, there are five main types of Norwalk viruses (denoted GI through GV), with most outbreak viruses falling into one subgroup, GII.4.

It has been noted that GII.4 strains are more dangerous than others. Whether that will be true this year is not yet known.

Virginia has registered six outbreaks caused by Sydney virus only this season — four in the last year and two this month, said Michelle Stoll, a spokeswoman for the state health department.

The number of cases is similar to that of outbreaks caused by other strains. Information about outbreaks in Maryland and the District caused by the new strain was not immediately available.

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