Hundreds of people have visited emergency rooms at area hospitals and clinics over the past month with severe stomach cramps, diarrhea, vomiting, nausea and fever.
Lawrence General Hospital had more than 200 cases in the past six weeks, followed by Holy Family Hospital in Methuen with 180 visits. In Haverhill, Merrimack Valley Hospital treated 120 patients with the Norovirus and Greater Lawrence Family Health Center in Lawrence reported 100 acute cases of gastroenteritis along with 20 staff members.
It was the same gastrointestinal virus or Norovirus - also commonly known as the stomach flu - that recently limited access to the 130-patient Sutton Hill Nursing Home in North Andover at 1801 Turnpike St.
Lawrence General Hospital officials said reported viral gastroenteritis increased significantly compared to the same time period last year.
"Gastrointestinal virus is an inflammation of the stomach, small and large intestines," said Dr. Venugopal Saddi, infectious disease and Chair of the Infection Control Committee at Holy Family Hospital.
"It's highly contagious in the sense the virus is present everywhere and by touching surfaces infected and placing our fingers in our mouths, it spreads" Saddi said.
Noroviruses are the most common cause of gastroenteritis in the United States. The Center for Disease Control estimates that each year more than 20 million cases of acute gastroenteritis are caused by noroviruses. That means about 1 in every 15 Americans will get norovirus illness each year. Norovirus is also estimated to cause over 70,000 hospitalization and 800 deaths each year in the United States
The virus is spread through contact with infected persons, eating or drinking contaminated foods or beverages prepared by people with the virus.
There are no vaccines for the Norovirus.
"You need to break the chain of infection," said Anne Rundel, infection control nurse at Greater Lawrence Health Center.
"Once you have the virus, then go from hand to mouth to eyes, it's hard to contain it," Rundel said. "It's very uncomfortable and you feel like you're going to die for 24 hours."