One in four hospitals close wards to halt vomiting bug
Last updated at 15:25pm on 4th January 2008
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Stay at home: If you have the norovirus
One quarter of the country's hospitals have shut down wards because of the highly contagious winter vomiting bug, according to newspaper reports.
Around 40 hospital trusts in England have closed wards in an attempt to stem the spread of the norovirus.
It can be transmitted by contact with an infected person, through contaminated food or water or by contact with contaminated surfaces or objects.
Doctors estimate up to 200,000 people a week are catching the virus.
The Royal College of GPs has warned workers who catch it to remain at home for 48 hours after symptoms subside to avoid spreading the bug. They have also been urged to stay away from surgeries and hospitals.
One of the most dramatic hospital closures was at the Royal Oldham Hospital in Lancashire, where managers closed 11 wards, more than a quarter of its total, and in an unusual move introduced restrictions on visiting hours at hospitals so far unaffected.
Two wards at the Lister Hospital in Stevenage were closed to new admissions following an outbreak of the bug, when nine of the 43 patients went down with the norovirus.
The source of the infection has been traced to visitors who were unwell entering the wards.
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The trust's director of infection prevention and control, Noel Scanlon, said: "Our first priority is always to our patients, which is why we're asking people visiting friends and relatives in hospital to ensure they maintain basic hygiene at all times.
"The wards will be deep-cleaned before they are reopened."
Meanwhile the NHS Direct has been swamped with more than a million queries in the worst outbreak of the bug for five years. Queries to NHS Direct rose by nearly two thirds over Christmas as the bug swept the country.
The health helpline's busiest day in 2007 was December 29th with 30,096 contacts. Boxing Day was close behind, with 29,299. On average, it handles more than 22,000 a day.
The most common complaints were vomiting and abdominal pain. Most of those affected are advised to stay at home, drink lots of fluids and take paracetamol.
The norovirus is not normally dangerous but the very young and very old are most at risk of complications from dehydration.
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A norovirus under the microscope: It causes vomiting and diarrhoea
Experts predict that the number of cases will rise still further when staff return to work and children go back to school next
A spokesman for the Royal College of General Practitioners said: "GPs are anecdotally reporting that they are seeing a lot of people coming in. People are not at work and school at the moment so there is going to be a rise in the figures."
Dr Darren Simpson, a GP in Bradford, said he had seen a large number of patients with norovirus.
"Very few people follow the advice of staying away from work, however, due to unsympathetic and often nagging bosses," he said.
"It's the worst time of year to catch it as a lot of places are understaffed due to leave so there is increased pressure to attend work."
One expert said the bug could send business productivity "through the floor".
Aaron Ross, director of absence management firm First Direct, said the number of those off due to gastro-intestinal complaints was 35 per cent higher than this time last year.
That means roughly 238,000 are off work nationally. He said hospitals in particular were struggling as more and more staff picked up the bug.
Mr Ross said: "We are looking at most people having a week off because the symptoms last normally for around 48 hours, and then people are advised to stay off for a further 48 hours.
"This is the last thing that employers need, given that many workers have just had two weeks off over Christmas. Productivity will go through the floor."