An outbreak of gastric flu that has infected hundreds of people and disrupted hospital services across the country is likely to worsen, health experts said yesterday.

An outbreak of gastric flu that has infected hundreds of people and disrupted hospital services across the country is likely to worsen, health experts said yesterday.

The Norwalk Virus, named after a small town in Ohio where it was first identified as the source of an epidemic among schoolchildren in 1968, is the most common cause of gastro-enteritis in Britain.

Each year, up to one million people are struck down by the virus, colloquially known as the winter vomiting illness, which causes diarrhoea, projectile vomiting, stomach cramps and a slight fever.

Yesterday there were reports of outbreaks as far apart as Manchester, Birmingham, Hertfordshire, Sussex, Dorset and Cornwall. The virus is easily spread in self-contained communities such as hospitals, nursing homes and schools. In Scotland, 12 hospitals have been affected. At the Victoria Infirmary in Glasgow, 283 patients and staff were struck down, forcing it to close.

Experts said the reported cases were probably only a small proportion of the total. "We see an estimated 600,000 to 1 million cases each year," said Simon Greggor of the Public Health Laboratory Service. "What we're seeing at the moment is not widely unusual for this time of year. Although there appears to be quite a lot of it about, it's not out of proportion to what we have seen in some previous years.

"This outbreak didn't just start in Glasgow and then spread across the county, it was already happening in all these places before the Glasgow situation hit the headlines.

"It's a seasonal disease like influenza or RSV [respiratory syncytial virus] infections. They are always around but reach a peak in the winter. Most people wouldn't even go to the doctor if they had it."

The virus is said to be less dangerous for children and the elderly than influenza, which can lead to chest infections, pneumonia, heart attacks and strokes, and RSV, which can lead to severe bronchitis.

The virus is highly contagious and spreads through either contaminated food and water or the coughs and vomiting of victims. "One minute you're feeling fine, the next minute you feel very ill and vomit quite severely," Mr Greggor said. "When an infected person does that they produce virus particles, which become airborne. If somebody ingests those particles they then become sick."

Dr John Cowden, consultant epidemiologist at the Scottish Centre for Infection and Environmental Health in Glasgow, said: "We are not talking about feeling a bit dicky and chucking up in the toilet bowl. I am told that people can vomit straight out for about a yard."

It lasts about 48 hours, but victims can be infectious for another three days. There is no treatment other than lots of liquid to prevent dehydration.

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