New powerful strain of winter vomiting bug sees cases treble in year

CASES of the winter vomiting bug trebled in Scotland in the first 12 weeks of the year, compared with the same period in 2009.

Almost 2,000 Scots have been struck down by the virus, raising fears that a new and more powerful strain is putting the nation's elderly at greater risk.

Experts believe the harsh winter could have played a part in the rise – up to 1,905 positive test results for norovirus in the first 12 weeks of this year, compared to 668 in the first 12 of last.

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They also believe that the cases reported are just the tip of the iceberg, with thousands more going unrecorded.

Professor Hugh Pennington, emeritus professor of bacteriology at Aberdeen University, said: ''We always underestimate the number of cases of norovirus as some people won't go in to see a GP.

''But when we look at the high number of hospital wards that have had to close this winter we get a good reflection of what is out there in the community, spilling into the wards.

''We're probably seeing a new strain doing the rounds, which is better at getting about, although that is very difficult to prove.

"The very cold weather may also have had something to do with it, as it is a seasonal disease.

''Most people get better very quickly and although the symptoms are very unpleasant, it's not life-threatening unless you have previous bad health.

"However, for elderly people it can be very tough and some will die, not because of the virus alone, but because it is the final straw.

''It is also very bad for the economy because of all the time people take off work, and for the NHS which has to close down wards until they've been cleaned, and then staff often catch it too.''

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Jackie Baillie, Scottish Labour's health spokeswoman, called for a National Reference Laboratory to be created to improve understanding of the virus.

"This increase is very concerning and one that the cabinet secretary can no longer afford to ignore,'' she said.

''Across Scotland, the number of wards closed as a result of the winter vomiting bug have been increasing.

"This is a worrying trend and I am calling on the cabinet secretary to stop being complacent and create a National Reference Laboratory that will help us keep track of the bug.''

Health secretary Nicola Sturgeon said: ''I asked the Healthcare Associated Infection Task Force to fully examine the case for establishing a norovirus reference laboratory in Scotland.

''The task force concluded there would be no defined public health benefit at this time in establishing a norovirus reference laboratory. The position will, however, be kept under review.''