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Southwest Georgia seeing stomach flu clusters

ALBANY -- During the winter months, it is not unusual for schools and long-term care facilities to see "stomach flu", or gastroenteritis, outbreaks caused by noroviruses.

Even so, it's better to be safe then sorry.

Officials in the Southwest Public Health District are reporting clusters of activity in nursing homes and schools in Dougherty and Colquitt counties, and therefore have decided to act on it.

"We always try to go in when it happens and give them tips on how to decrease the rates," said District Director Dr. Jacqueline Grant. "We are concerned because it has led to a couple of hospitalizations in the district."

While it is a cause for concern, there are other areas having the same problem.

"There are outbreaks throughout the state as well," Grant said.

Noroviruses are not affected by treatment with antibiotics and cannot grow outside of a person's body. Symptoms include nausea, vomiting, diarrhea and stomach cramping. A low-grade fever, chills, headache, muscle aches and a general sense of tiredness may also occur.

Symptoms of norovirus illness usually begin about 24 to 48 hours after ingestion of the virus, but they can appear as early as 12 hours after exposure.

The illness often begins suddenly, and the infected person may feel very sick. In most people the illness is self-limiting with symptoms lasting for about one or two days. Usually, there are no long-term health impacts related to the illness.

However, sometimes people are unable to drink enough liquids to replace what they lost because of vomiting and diarrhea. These people can become dehydrated and may need special medical attention.

During norovirus infection, the problem with dehydration is usually only seen among the very young, the elderly and people with other illnesses.

"The elderly and infants are more prone to dehydration," Grant said. "Those groups just tend to be more prone to complications."

Experts say the best way to protect against dehydration is to drink plenty of liquids. Severe dehydration may require hospitalization for treatment with intravenous fluids.

People can become infected with the virus in several ways including eating food or drinking liquids that are contaminated with norovirus, touching surfaces or objects contaminated and then placing their hand in their mouth or having direct contact with another person who is infected and showing symptoms.

Practicing proper hygiene is the most effective way of combating infection, Grant said.

"Frequent handwashing is important," she said. "Proper hygiene is the main message for (prevention)."

Thoroughly cleaning and disinfecting contaminated surfaces using a bleach-based cleaner after an illness episode and avoiding food preparation while infectious is also important, Grant said.

People infected with norovirus are contagious from the moment they begin feeling ill to at least three days after recovery. Some people may be contagious for as long as two weeks after recovery.

There are many different strains of norovirus, which makes it difficult for a person's body to develop long-lasting immunity. Therefore, norovirus illness can recur throughout a person's lifetime. Due to differences in genetic factors, some people are more likely to become infected and develop more severe illness than others.

There is no vaccine to prevent norovirus infection. There is no drug to

treat people who are infected.