Although Maryland is still experiencing high levels of flu infections, according to the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, the spread seems to have hit a decline, or at least a plateau. Another nasty winter virus, however, has been making its way through the country.
Sometimes referred to as “stomach flu” or mistaken for food poisoning, norovirus is an extremely contagious virus that is not related to influenza, the virus responsible for the flu, according to the CDC.
This year, a new strain of the virus, first seen in Australia, has been making its way through the United States. Currently this new strain – GII.4 Sydney – is the leading cause of norovirus outbreaks in the country, according to the CDC.
Norovirus can be transmitted by an infected person, contaminated food or water, or by simply coming into contact with a contaminated surface, according to the CDC. The virus causes inflammation of the stomach and/or intestines which is responsible for the symptoms of norovirus, inluding stomach pain, diarrhea, nausea and vomiting.
Howard County General Hospital Spokeswoman Sharon Sopp said that doctors have not been testing for the virus routinely, so “we don’t have a good indicator of whether we’re seeing any increase” in infections locally.
Any hospitalizations related to norovirus, Sopp said, would likely be elderly people; people with underlying medical conditions; or compromised immune systems.
Nationally, more than half of the 266 norovirus outbreaks reported in the last four months of 2012 were caused by the new strain, according to the CDC.
“The new strain spread rapidly across the United States from September to December 2012,” said Aron Hall, an CDC epidemiologist.
“The proportion or reported outbreaks caused by this strain increased dramatically from 19 percent in September to 58 percent in December.”
It’s not yet clear whether this new strain will lead to more outbreaks than in years past, Hall said, “However, CDC continues to work with state partners to watch this disease closely and see if the strain is associated with more severe illness.”
To reduce the transmission of norovirus, health officials say people should wash hands with soap and water, disinfect surfaces, rinse fruits and vegetables, cook shellfish thoroughly and refrain from preparing food for others while ill.
Every year, according to the CDC, about 21 million people become ill with norovirus; it is responsible for about 70,000 hospitalizations annually and 800 deaths.