New stomach flu bug strain detected in U.S.

PARKERSBURG – A new strain of stomach bug sweeping the globe is taking over in the United States, health officials said.

Since September, more than 140 outbreaks in the U.S. have been caused by the new Sydney strain of norovirus. It may not be unusually dangerous; some scientists don’t think it is. But it is different, and many people might not be able to fight off its gut-wrenching effects.

Tim Brunicardi, director of marketing and public affairs for Camden Clark Medical Center, said there have been a few cases.

“Since this ‘new’ version is a typical norovirus, there’s no reason for the hospital to test patients to see which version they have,” Brunicardi said. “There is no way for us to know if we’ve had patients afflicted with this particular strain.”

The “new” strain of norovirus, the so-called Sydney version, mentioned in the national media recently, is a typical norovirus. Some patients affected by these viruses think they have food poisoning or refer to it as “stomach flu.”

In fact, it’s not a flu but a group of related viruses that affects the stomach and intestines and causes an illness known as gastroenteritis, inflammation of the stomach and intestines, health officials said. Norovirus illness is not related to the flu (influenza), which is a respiratory illness caused by the influenza virus.

Noroviruses are the most common cause of gastroenteritis in the United States, Brunicardi said. CDC estimates that each year more than 20 million cases of acute gastroenteritis are caused by noroviruses.

That means about 1 in every 15 Americans will get norovirus illness each year. Norovirus is also estimated to cause more than 70,000 hospitalizations and 800 deaths each year in the United States.

The new strain is making people sick in Japan, Western Europe and other parts of the world. It was first identified last year in Australia and called the Sydney strain, according to a report released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In the U.S., it is now accounting for about 60 percent of norovirus outbreaks, according to the CDC.

Norovirus – once known as Norwalk virus – is highly contagious and often spreads in places like schools, cruise ships and nursing homes, especially during the winter, health officials said. Last month, 220 people on the Queen Mary II were stricken during a Caribbean cruise.

The Sydney strain’s appearance has coincided with a spike in influenza, perhaps contributing to the perception that this is a particularly bad flu season in the U.S., the CDC said.