Almost three million people may have contracted norovirus this winter, according to new figures. Cases of the vomiting bug were also partly to blame for three hospitals being placed on red alert, an NHS manager said yesterday.
Lincoln County Hospital, Grantham and District Hospital and Boston's Pilgrim Hospital have been put on their highest state of alert after patient admissions rose by 20 per cent.
The Health Protection Agency confirmed that laboratory reports of norovirus in England and Wales in the last three months of 2007 were double that of the year before. There were 1,922 lab reports of the bug from September to December, compared with 935 cases in the same three months of 2006, the HPA said.
Laboratory reports in December reflected "a tiny fraction" of all the people infected, the HPA said. It estimated that for every case it recorded another 1,500 went unreported.
This would equate to about 2.9 million people infected this winter.
The HPA said that the norovirus season had started "uncharacteristically early", with a greater number of cases nationally from the first week of November.
Improved reporting and testing may have contributed to the recorded increase in outbreaks of the disease, which causes vomiting, stomach pain and diarrhoea. On Thursday five patients were admitted with norovirus to Grantham and District Hospital, while another three contracted it overnight. Yesterday five staff at the hospital were off sick with the bug.
The NHS trust that runs the three hospitals has been forced to open 85 beds in day care units, a specialist eye ward and a ward reserved for the elderly.
George Briggs, general manager for emergency care for Grantham, Lincoln and Louth, said: "We always expect an increase in the winter and put some beds to one side. But we didn't expect a 20 per cent increase in admissions."
Doctors estimate that more than 100,000 people a week are catching the norovirus.