Winter Norovirus set to be stomach-ache for NHS

George Aitch  IDec 2 2016

Norovirus, aka ‘the winter bug’, is an unpleasant virus affecting the stomach. Typical symptoms include nausea, vomiting and stomach cramps. Thankfully it only lasts a couple of days and will go away by itself. Every winter it makes headlines due to ward and hospital department closures it forces on the NHS. This is year is no exception; several outbreaks have been reported across the UK in Devon, Wrexham, Belfast among others.

Although norovirus is usually more distasteful than dangerous, for the vulnerable patient population this is a different story. Thus it is important that visitors to hospital ensure that they are not ill before arriving on the wards to see family members lest they risk spreading the infection.

Norovirus, also known as the Norwalk virus, causes a type of illness called gastroenteritis. Of the million people it infects per year, those most at risk are the very young and the very old as well as those whose immune system is weak for any other reason. The virus itself is spread by contamination of surfaces via tiny airborne particles of faeces and vomit: basic hygiene is vital. The virus is destroyed by chlorine based bleaches and disinfectants, which may be used on these contaminated surfaces (also called ‘fomites’).

Outbreaks of norovirus tend to occur annually in the winter. Previously, NHS resources were able to stretch to absorb the extra demands faced by services around this time of year. Extra staff were within ward budgets and could be called in. Extra overflow wards could be kept aside to contain the increased number of admissions as well as reduce bed occupancy rates, which have been correlated with levels of hospital acquired infections. However, the £1.85 billion hole in the budget blocks trusts from being able to absorb the additional workload. The reasons for this vary, but include staff shortages, bed shortages and service overload.

Healthcare think tanks such as The King’s Fund have expressed concern following the latest budget figures from Philip Hammond. The story is a familiar one; the rising demand for hospital services and static funding lead to a reduction in quality of those services. We may be in for a bleak winter indeed.
You can help by washing your hands properly and ensuring that if you do fall ill, you do not bring the infection into a healthcare environment If you have Norovirus, be sure to drink plenty of fluids and get a good amount of bed rest. If you’re concerned, call your GP or 111 service or visit the links below for more information.
Any opinions above are the author's alone and may not represent those of the NHS or Mind and Medicine. Any comment is based on the best available evidence at the time of writing.  All data is based on externally validated studies unless expressed otherwise. Novel data is representative of sample surveyed. Online recommendation is no substitute for seeing your own doctor and should not be taken as medical advice.