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December 27. 2012 11:29PM

Increase seen in cases of norovirus, flu

It's that time of year - public health officials are seeing a surge in norovirus and influenza cases.

"We are indoors more and in closer contact with one another," said Chris Adamski, infectious disease bureau chief with the state Department of Health and Human Services.

Someone with a case of norovirus experiences gastrointestinal rebellion. Cleaning up after students in school who become sick is one way the virus is able to infect anyone who may come in contact with it, health officials said. Personal contact is the norovirus' best ally - whether it is in school, on a cruise ship, or being unlucky at the airline seat lottery.

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that 20 million people will be hit by the bug each year, or one in every 15 Americans.

There is no immunization and no cure for norovirus. It is called a "self-limiting" illness; the symptoms are usually gone in a couple of days.

To prevent its spread, the CDC has several recommendations:

-- Practice good hand hygiene, washing when appropriate.

-- Be careful around food, taking care to wash fruits and vegetables.

-- Don't prepare foods while infected.

-- Disinfect contaminated surfaces with a bleach-based household cleaner.

-- Wash laundry thoroughly if it has been contaminated by infected bodily fluids.

Norovirus may be called stomach flu, but it really isn't.

"It's very different from influenza, which is specifically a respiratory illness," Adamski said.

Flu season

Flu season has arrived in New Hampshire.

By mid-December, cases of flu were "fairly widespread," according to a DHHS analysis.

"In the last few weeks, we have seen an increase in flu activity," Adamski said. "More people are being diagnosed by providers and more people are saying they have the flu."

DHHS tracks a group of doctors, called sentinel physicians, who report on suspected and confirmed cases of the flu.

Because the influenza virus adapts and overcomes the natural immunity of someone who has had the flu, the types of virus making people sick are compared to the protection provided by flu shots.

"What are being seen are several different strains," Adamski said. "It looks like a pretty good match in what is circulated and what people can be vaccinated against."

Supplies of the vaccine are said to be in good supply; a flu shot can now be obtained at drug stores.

It is still "very, very early" in the flu season, Adamski said, making it a good time to take advantage of easy access to flu vaccines that have, so far, been effective.

And while flu is very much a part of the New England winter, cold weather doesn't cause colds or the flu.

"There is no scientific evidence that it's the weather," Adamski said. "Flu may be more likely or easily transmitted because folks are inside and in closer contact with each other."

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Bill Smith may be reached at wsmith@unionleader.com.


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