(ABC News)–A new strain of stomach bug sweeping the globe is taking over in the U.S., health officials say.
Since September, more than 140 outbreaks in the U.S. have been caused by
the new Sydney strain of norovirus. It may not be unusually dangerous;
some scientists don't think it is. But it is different, and many people
might not be able to fight off its gut-wrenching effects.
Clearly, it's having an impact. The new strain is making people sick in
Japan, Western Europe, and other parts of the world. It was first
identified last year in Australia and called the Sydney strain.
In the U.S., it is now accounting for about 60 percent of norovirus
outbreaks, according to report released Thursday by the Centers for
Disease Control and Prevention.
Norovirus — once known as Norwalk virus — is highly contagious and often
spreads in places like schools, cruise ships and nursing homes,
especially during the winter. Last month, 220 people on the Queen Mary
II were stricken during a Caribbean cruise.
Sometimes mistakenly called stomach flu, the virus causes bouts of vomiting and diarrhea for a few days.
Every two or three years, a new strain evolves — the last was in 2009.
The Sydney strain's appearance has coincided with a spike in influenza,
perhaps contributing to the perception that this is a particularly bad
flu season in the U.S.
Ian Goodfellow, a prominent 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.
Health officials have grown better at detecting new strains and figuring
out which one is the culprit. They now know that norovirus is also the
most common cause of food poisoning in the U.S.
It's spread by infected food handlers who don't do a good job washing
their hands after using the bathroom. But unlike salmonella and other
foodborne illnesses, norovirus can also spread in the air, through
droplets that fly when a sick person vomits.
“It's a headache” to try to control, said Dr. John Crane, a University
of Buffalo infectious disease specialist who had to deal with a
norovirus outbreak in a hospital ward a couple of years ago.
Each year, noroviruses cause an estimated 21 million illnesses and 800 deaths, the CDC says.
For those infected, there's really no medicine. They just have to ride
it out for the day or two of severe symptoms, and guard against
dehydration, experts said.
The illness even got the attention of comedian Stephen Colbert, who this
week tweeted: “Remember, if you're in public and have the winter
vomiting bug, be polite and vomit into your elbow.”
Copyright 2013 by ABC News