A MAJOR campaign to try to limit the impact of the winter vomiting virus on the NHS in Scotland is being launched after services were crippled by it last year.
People will be urged to stay away from hospitals, care homes and other public places if they have symptoms of the norovirus bug, to reduce the risk of it spreading.
But experts warned nothing could be done to prevent the virus’s arrival; and limiting its spread was very difficult due to the ease and speed with which it is able to pass from person to person.
Last winter saw hospitals across Scotland struggling to cope with demand, with a shortage of beds meaning long waits for patients in accident and emergency units and others being moved around wards. This was compounded by the closure of wards because of outbreaks of the bug, symptoms of which include sickness, nausea and diarrhoea.
Health Protection Scotland (HPS) has issued guidance to the NHS to encourage services to prepare for the arrival of norovirus from next month. In addition, for the first time, a major campaign aimed at the public will launched using the slogan, “Stay at home. Keep it to yourself.”
Evonne Curran, infection control nurse consultant at HPS, said the NHS had a raft of measures to try to minimise the bug’s impact on services, such as training new staff and organising the isolation of patients. But she said educating the public was also key.
“We know norovirus will come every year, we have no vaccine for it and we have to do everything possible to manage and minimise incidents and the impact of it,” she said. Curran said the virus changed each year and sometimes it was able to spread more easily, causing even more problems for the NHS.
Another problem is that people gain no immunity from further infection if they have norovirus, meaning they can fall ill again and again.
Curran said these and other factors had led to norovirus being labelled the “perfect pathogen”.
“This year we are having a campaign, working with Health Scotland, to say if you have got norovirus, the key message is to stay at home,” she said. “I think people have a sense of duty and feel they have to go to visit their relatives, even if they are ill. Another problem with the virus is you don’t get a lot of warning. It comes on you very, very quickly.”
Curran said as well as hospitals and care homes, the virus could spread in any areas people gathered together, such as schools and colleges.
“People need to look after themselves too if they have got symptoms. So by doing this we can help people look after themselves better and stop them spreading it in the community where they will spread it further,” she said.
The campaign will use posters, leaflets and social media to spread the message about the importance of limiting the spread of the bug.
Lesley Shepherd, lead infection control nurse at NHS Forth Valley, has been involved in campaign development.
“Hospitals are an ideal environment [for the spread of norovirus] because there are a lot of people in one place, it’s warm, it’s a nice environment for bacteria and viruses to flourish,” she said.
She said the message to patients and hospital visitors was not to come in if they were unwell and for 48 hours after symptoms have stopped.
“I work in intensive care and you see a husband who has come to see his wife who has been unwell at home but he still wants to visit her and not let her down,” Shepherd said.
“So they come in, he’s unwell on the ward and before you know it we have two, three, four other patients with it because your immune system is compromised if you’re in hospital so anything like that kind of virus is going to make them ill.”
Aberdeen-based bacteriologist Professor Hugh Pennington said having a campaign to try to discourage people from going to hospitals with the bug was one of the only things the NHS could do to try to prevent its spread.
“The advice to the public is a very good thing, but whether it will have any significant effect is hard to say, because the virus is so transmissible,” he said.
Pennington warned that while for most the bug was an unpleasant but minor ailment, for vulnerable hospital patients it could be much more serious.
“There will be deaths, unfortunately, because it’s the final straw. Not because the virus kills you but because you’re already teetering on the edge,” he said, “In the sick, frail and elderly it can really be quite serious, which is another reason for keeping it out of hospitals.”
A Scottish Government spokeswoman said: “In previous years, NHS boards have co-ordinated their own local activity around norovirus, however, this year we have decided to centralise activity to ensure there is a consistent approach across Scotland.”