Thu, Jan 20, 2005 - Page 2 News List

CDC confirms stomach flu outbreaks at five hospitals

By Chiu Yu-Tzu  /  STAFF REPORTER

Five hospitals and healthcare centers have been affected by gastroenteritis, more commonly known as "stomach flu," in the last three months and about 30 patients are confirmed to have been infected by "Norwalk-like virus," or norovirus, officials at the Center for Disease Control (CDC) said yesterday.

Norovirus can cause an acute form of gastroenteritis.

In addition to the five cases mentioned by the CDC, several people in a Suao hospital have also fallen ill.

Yesterday morning, health authorities in Ilan County reported that since Jan. 5, 14 patients and four nursing staff at Suao Veterans Hospital have fallen ill with symptoms pointing to gastroenteritis, suffering from nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and some stomach cramping.

Officials said they were investigating the cause.

Gastroenteritis is not usually a serious illness, except for patients who are unable to care for themselves -- such as infants, the ill, the elderly or the handicapped -- and who would be at greater risk of dehydration from severe diarrhea.

"The epidemic at the hospital was brought under control and CDC investigators say that an association with norovirus cannot be ruled out," Ho Ping-sheng (何秉聖), director of the county's Bureau of Health, said.

CDC officials yesterday told a press conference that since November, a link to norovirus had been confirmed in five outbreaks in Hualien, Pingtung and Tainan. The Suao case, however, remains uncertain. Final results of tests remained unavailable yesterday.

However, CDC officials stressed that managers running hospitals and healthcare centers should be aware of the recent outbreaks of gastroenteritis, which are more common in the winter.

According to Wang Wha-kung (王華恭), director of the Infection Control Division under the CDC, the virus is frequently spread through contaminated food or water.

"We've seen warning signs. Three of the five affected places are places established for the mentally handicapped, who are relatively less able to deal with fecal matter. It's crucial that managers ensure an immaculate environment," Wang said.

Other cases were reported in southern Taiwan.

Officials said that norovirus is transmitted primarily through the fecal-oral route, by consumption of food or water contaminated by feces, or directly from person-to-person. The illness can also be contracted through contact with a contaminated object. However, there's no evidence to suggest that infection occurs through the respiratory system.

According to the US CDC, molecular diagnostics now enable detection of the virus in clinical and environmental settings, and sources have been traced to contaminated food and water.

Statistics show that in 2002, about 23 million people were infected by the virus in the US. Of these, 50,000 were hospitalized and 310 patients -- mostly elderly people, children and infants -- died.

In Japan, an outbreak of norovirus was reported last month. Six of 42 affected residents at a home for the aged died.

Taiwanese CDC officials said that schools, restaurants, hospitals, healthcare centers, day-care centers and resorts account for about 60 percent to 80 percent of the places affected by the spread of norovirus.

Wang, however, said that the spread could be easily controlled if certain preventative measures are adopted.

"We've demanded such cases be reported immediately. Personal hygiene, such as washing hands frequently, should be heavily promoted at these vulnerable places," Wang said.

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