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."
The North Andover Board of Health late last week recommended Sutton Hill not accept new patients or allow visitors after 40 patients and staff members became ill.
Sutton Hill reopened to visitors on Jan. 16, said Jeanne Moore, public relations coordinator for Sutton Hill.
"We're happy to have gotten the report that there are no new cases," said Susan Sawyer, North Andover health director.
Sawyer said because the town only recommended they had no visitors or new patients to stop the spread of the virus, it was up to the nursing home to allow them back.
To prevent any new outbreaks, Moore said Sutton Hill will continue taking precautions. "We will be continuing to clean in accordance with our outbreak management procedures for the next 30 days," she said.
In addition to contacting the North Andover Board of Health, Moore had said Sutton Hill sent samples to the Executive Office of Health and Human Services for further evaluation of the virus.
As of yesterday, the state hadn't issued any formal alerts.
While the symptoms are severe, most people start getting better within 24 to 48 hours.
"It's very serious and contagious, but people dying from this is very uncommon," Saddi said.
Doctors said the first 24 hours is crucial for people suffering from the virus as they need to drink lots of liquid.
But keeping liquids down can be a problem, said Rundel of the Greater Lawrence Health Center.
"It's amazing how soon people get dehydrated from the vomiting and diarrhea. It's serious in people who are already compromised in some way because they're older, are already chronically ill or are babies and may get dehydrated easier," Rundel said.
"That is really typical of what we see this time of the year," said Audrey Mears, director of the emergency room at Merrimack Valley Hospital.
Frequent hand washing, specially between the fingers and under the finger nails where most dirt is collected.
Wiping down door knobs
Disinfecting contaminated surfaces with household chlorine bleach-based cleaners
Washing soiled clothing.
Avoiding contaminated food or water.