Feb. 17, 2017 — Schools from Rhode Island to California have closed down for days this winter after students and teachers became ill with what is believed to be norovirus, public health officials say.
Norovirus, incorrectly called the “stomach flu,” is a short-term illness that’s different from the flu. It strikes about 20 million people a year in the U.S., most commonly in the winter, and causes a few days of misery, with diarrhea, nausea, vomiting, and abdominal pain.
In England, norovirus infections recently hit a 5-year high, according to Public Health England. Despite numerous U.S. school closings, the CDC says there is nothing unusual so far about this year’s norovirus season.
“We are currently seeing the typical increase in norovirus outbreaks during the winter season,” says Ian Branam, a CDC spokesman.
In December 2016, 175 suspected or confirmed norovirus outbreaks were reported by the nine states participating in the CDC norovirus reporting network, compared with 72 in December 2015. From Aug. 1 to the first week of January, the states reported about 400 outbreaks.
In an outbreak, more than the usual or expected number of people within a specific geographic area have a disease.
Norovirus is one of many bugs that can cause such symptoms.
“It has been a bad year for stomach viruses, but whether it’s norovirus or not is hard to say,” says Dennis Woo, MD, a pediatrician with UCLA Health in Santa Monica, CA. “Most of the time, it isn’t diagnosed as norovirus unless there is a huge outbreak,” he says. If it’s not an outbreak, a doctor is likely to tell the patient, based on symptoms, that it is some sort of virus, he says.
Easy to Catch
It isn’t surprising that schools are being hit hard with norovirus, says William Schaffner, MD, and infectious disease specialist and a spokesman for the Infectious Diseases Society of America. “The norovirus usually affects children, and usually children in a congregate setting,” he says. So the virus can spread easily in schools and day-care centers.