HEALTH chiefs estimate numbers of people affected by an outbreak of the winter vomiting bug have passed one million.
The number of laboratory-confirmed cases of the norovirus has reached 3,538 in England and Wales, up from 3,046 last week, and an 83 per cent increase on the 1,934 cases at this time last year, the Health Protection Agency said yesterday.
It is estimated that for every reported case some 288 go unreported, meaning there could be more than one million cases, up from just under 880,000 calculated last week.
The agency said that in the two weeks to December 23 there were 70 reported hospital outbreaks of the virus, compared to 61 in the previous fortnight, bringing the total of outbreaks for the season to 538.
The number of cases has risen earlier than expected this year, following an as-yet unexplained trend seen across Europe and other parts of the world.
John Harris, a norovirus expert at the Health Protection Agency, said: “The number of laboratory confirmed cases has risen once again as it appears that we have seen the rise in cases that usually begins in January start a little earlier than we normally expect.
“Norovirus is very contagious, and very unpleasant.
“To help prevent spread of the disease, it’s important that people who believe they are unwell with the virus maintain good hand hygiene and stay away from hospitals, schools and care homes, as these closed environments are particularly prone to outbreaks which can cause severe disruption.”
The bug has swept the country and has led to the closure of dozens of hospital wards.
It has also affected holidaymakers on two cruise ships.
Hospital chiefs in Rotherham yesterday became the latest in the region to urge people with symptoms to stay at home rather than avoid spreading the virus to vulnerable people. Managers said they had seen only a few cases of the illness so far during the winter but infection control measures were in place and they strongly advised all hospital visitors to take hygiene precautions.
Norovirus is highly contagious and can be transmitted through contact with an infected person or contaminated surfaces and objects.
It is known to spread rapidly in closed environments such as hospitals, schools and nursing homes.
Symptoms include sudden vomiting, diarrhoea, or both, a temperature, headache and stomach cramps.
The bug usually goes away within a few days.
Although people can suffer from norovirus at any time of the year, activity increases in the winter months, with most cases seen between January and March.
Indications from Europe and Japan are that norovirus activity also started to increase early.
In Australia, it peaked during their winter – June to August – but this season the outbreak went on for longer with cases into the summer, which starts on December 1 in the southern hemisphere.
The Royal Lancaster Infirmary is one of the latest hospitals to be badly affected.
It closed all its wards to visitors for two days on December 19 in a bid to stem a “significant outbreak” that saw 140 patients and 20 staff affected by symptoms of the bug.
Latest figures show a further growth in cases of flu, with children aged five to 14 most affected by the illness so far this winter.
Vulnerable people including the old, those with long-standing illnesses and pregnant women are being urged to get vaccinated against the virus.
Vaccine uptake among over-65s has been more than 70 per cent but only two in five pregnant women and healthcare staff have so far accepted the jabs.
Fewer than 50 per cent have taken up the offer of inoculations among other at-risk groups.