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Wednesday, 23 January, 2002, 18:47 GMT
The stomach bug outbreak
Chris Hogg
The BBC's Chris Hogg looks at the future of the NHS
BBC Health Correspondent Chris Hogg on the significance of the stomach virus outbreak.

The headline in one of Wednesday's tabloids screamed out 'Danger Virus Sweeps Britain'.

Britain was in the grip of a gastric flu epidemic apparently.

Really? Well, no, according to the Public Health Laboratory Service and it should know, its job is to monitor disease outbreaks across the UK.

It told the BBC that although the levels of winter vomiting disease are higher than normal they're still not significantly different from what might be expected at this time of year.

That is not to say it is not grim for those people who contract it, and although it may have been over-hyped in some sections of the media it is still in the public interest to try to cover accurately the spread of the disease.

Traditionally we see a rise in the levels of what's known as the small round structured virus after Christmas which tends to fall off by the end of February.

Not reported

It is accepted that levels of the disease are under-reported (most people do not bother the doctor but suffer in silence for 48 hours until it passes).

But if it is not that unusual what justifies the hype?

Winter vomiting disease first hit the headlines in Scotland after a particularly widespread outbreak among staff and patients at the Victoria Infirmary in Glasgow forced managers to close the doors.

That was a signficant development, and duly received national coverage on television and radio and in the papers at the weekend.

By Monday morning every local press agency, paper and regional station was probably putting in calls to its own hospitals to see if they had been affected.

Medical correspondents on newspapers were interviewing public health officials who explained the symptoms: projectile vomiting and diarrhoea which comes on suddenly and lasts for 48 hours.

Good copy

Unpleasant but not dangerous, although as diseases go, pretty dramatic. It makes good copy.

There was a clear warning from the scientists.

The disease is extremely infectious so if your child feels unwell, even if they do not vomit into the cereal bowl you should probably keep them at home.

You can see the ripple effect. More and more absences. Routine operations cancelled. Schools cannot find enough supply teachers. The knock on effect on services makes more news.

For those suffering from the disease it is miserable, as it is for those trying to run hospitals or schools without them.

But the reality of the severity of the outbreaks falls short of the scare stories on some of the front pages.

It is not the first time we have seen such stories and it will not be the last.

Remember necrotizing fasciitis, the flesh eating bacterium which 'appeared' in hospitals across Britain a couple of years ago.

Or the TB outbreaks last year?

Front pages

The reality is that in both these cases the outbreaks turned out to be not much more widespread than normal, but once they had appeared on the front pages a few times, they became a 'trend'.

And at this time of year it is worse than normal.

Hospitals especially face their busiest time of year as more frail and elderly people are admitted suffering from respiratory illness while staff are more likely to be off sick themselves.

The effects of any outbreak of disease, such as flu or vomiting are therefore, exaggerated.

The Public Health Laboratory Service says winter vomiting disease levels usually start to recede in February, dropping off significantly by the end of the month.

Long before then of course it will have become 'old news' and editors will be no longer be interested in covering the story.

Until next year that is.

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