New Stomach Bug: The Latest Norovirus And Everything You Need To Know

By Jason Van Hoven on January 24, 2013 4:36 PM EST

New stomach bug norovirus
Particles of norovirus after transmission electron microscopy. (Photo: CDC.gov)

A new strain of the stomach bug norovirus, or what NBCNews.com points out as "the winter vomiting disease," has hit the United States hard after spreading around the world in places such as Japan and Western Europe, according to reports.

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Since September, more than 140 outbreaks of the new stomach bug in the U.S. have been caused by what the Center for Disease Control and Prevention calls the new GII.4 Sydney strain of norovirus. The CDC says the proportion of norovirus outbreaks jumped dramatically from 19 percent in September to 58 percent in December.

A report from the CDC released Thursday says that the new stomach bug, first identified in Australia in March of last year as the Sydney strain, is now accounting for about 60 percent of norovirus outbreaks in the U.S. Every two or three years, a new strain evolves -- the last strain coming in 2009 -- and when that happens, people who already had previous versions of the stomach bug are more likely to get it again. While scientists do say the new stomach bug isn't life-threatening, it's nonetheless different, and many people may not be able to fight off the effects -- bouts of vomiting and diarrhea for a few days.

What's more is that the new stomach bug's appearance, which is actually common this time of year, typically striking between November and April with the peak usually occurring in January, has coincided with the recent influenza craze across the country, which might be contributing to the idea that Americans are experiencing an abnormally bad flu season. However, experts say the outbreaks aren't related.

"Right now, it's too soon to tell whether the new strain of norovirus will lead to more outbreaks than in previous years," said Dr. Aron Hall, a CDC epidemiologist specializing in viruses. "However, CDC continues to work with state partners to watch this closely and see if the strain is associated with more severe illness."

Norovirus, now the most common cause of food poisoning in the U.S. once known as Norwalk virus, is highly contagious and often spreads quickly in places like schools, cruise ships, nursing homes and other confined spaces containing a large group of people, especially during the winter. Last month, norovirus infected 220 people on the Queen Mary II during a Caribbean cruise.

"You can be feeling quite fine one minute and within several hours suffer continuous vomiting and diarrhea," said Ian Goodfellow, a prominent researcher at England's University of Cambridge to the Associated Press.

Here's more of what you need to know about the new strain of the stomach bug norovirus:

- It can be spread making contact with food handlers infected with it who don't wash their hands well or the surfaces they use and through the air via droplets or particles that fly when a sick person vomits (projectile vomiting)

- Each year, norovirus is the leading cause of acute gastroenteritis, causing more than 21 million illnesses and 800 deaths, according to the CDC

- For those infected, there's no medicine, but rather preventative measures, including washing hands with soap and water, disinfecting surfaces, rinsing fruits and vegetables, cooking shellfish thoroughly and not preparing food or caring for others while ill

- Young children and the elderly are most at risk of norovirus and the serious complications it brings, usually because of the danger of dehydration from rapid fluid loss, which can cause blood pressure to drop, which in turn can result in fainting that can lead to falls

- Those infected can experience symptoms for a few days, so they must do their best to stay hydrated

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