There is a pre-Christmas wave of viral gastroenteritis sweeping the capital this month and miserably for all concerned, party season is probably one of the reasons for its rapid spread.
RiotACT has conducted vox pops around town throughout the week after hearing of many friends and acquaintances being struck down with gastro.
It seems that if you don’t know someone who has suffered from vomiting, diarrhoea, bouts of nausea and extreme tiredness in the past fortnight, it’s likely you soon will. Get hold of a bucket now while you can.
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Griffith resident Zoe O’Donnell was recovering from a bout herself and told RiotACT the gastro virus was rife.
“It’s been at our local school communities in Watson and Braddon and my partner has it in his work community, in his sports community. It is so contagious.
“Everybody’s had the gastro, similar symptoms, vomiting, chronic diarrhoea, irritable bowel and extreme exhaustion and tiredness … all in the past week.”
“All the adults in our friendship circle have had it, and it’s gross.”
One family we spoke to had been struck across three generations despite having no direct contact with each other in the days leading up to infection.
Of a classroom of ten we canvassed mid-week, half had either been ill or had family members with the bug in recent days.
RiotACT contacted ACT Chief Health Officer Dr Paul Kelly to ask whether his office was aware of the outbreak and he confirmed viral gastroenteritis was currently known to be present in five childcare centres in the city, but said this wasn’t unusual for this time of year.
“This is the season of viral gastroenteritis,” Dr Kelly said.
“It starts late winter, peaks in autumn and is less so in summer months. Regularly during this period every year we have some childcare centres affected.”
The Chief Health Officer agreed that one reason the virus could be spreading so fast is that Canberrans are eating food prepared by others, shaking hands with and kissing each other more often than usual given it’s the Christmas party season.
“The more you eat out and the more you eat in unusual circumstances, the more you increase your chances of contracting it,” Dr Kelly said.
It’s impossible to get any real figures on the number of cases there have been given most sufferers won’t got to the doctor about a fast turnaround illness like gastro. The Chief Health Officer tends to only hear of outbreaks in childcare and aged care centres where reporting is required if there are multiple cases.
“Most people who get it are sick for a short time and by the time they think they might go to the doctor they’re already better,” Dr Kelly said.
A GP would need to think the case was unusual to take a specimen and notify the Chief Health Officer of the result.
More serious consequences can occur in institutions like childcare centres and aged care facilities where individuals are in close contact and issues with toileting are more complex.
“Viral forms like norovirus, the most common one, tend to spend like wildfire in those settings,” Dr Kelly said.
Aged care facilities were particularly problematic because while children can stay home from childcare during an outbreak, aged care residents live on site.
“The reason we’re interested in those places is that it’s the very young and the very old who are more affected by these things, they can become sicker and dehydrated more quickly.”
Readers should therefore be extra vigilant with handwashing and food preparation when visiting relatives in or hosting guests from aged care facilities this Xmas season.
Dr Kelly said that for the average family, someone goes somewhere, picks it up in some food they’ve eaten or water they’ve drunk and brings it back to the whole household.
“Unless there is a real cluster of cases, there’s not much I can do about this. It comes and goes and it’s done,” Dr Kelly said.
His office had not conducted any testing on the reported childcare centre cases because any finding would lead to the same advice: remain vigilant about existing handwashing and food handling protocols and if you’re sick, stay home.
Dr Kelly did, however, provide us with some tips for preventing the spread of gastro and for managing it if you have been struck down. The main one is washing hands before and after handling food and after going to the toilet.
“For food handlers, don’t do it when we’re you’re sick with gastro, that’s a recipe for disaster,” Dr Kelly said.
“If someone has been sick with gastro they should wait for 48 hours after last vomiting or diarrhoea symptom before working in food handling.”
PREVENTING TUMMY BUGS
• Wash your hands before and after handling food and after going to the toilet.
• Do not handle food for others for 48 hours after your last vomiting or diarrhoea symptoms.
• Don’t go to work if you’re sick and don’t send children to childcare if they’re sick.
• Avoid cross-contamination of foods, so don’t cut vegetables on the same board you’ve used for raw chicken, for example.
• Manage food temperatures. Cook food properly and keep it over 55 degrees or cold if you’re not going to eat it straight away.
• Particularly in the summer months, defrost food in the fridge or microwave, not out on the bench which leaves opportunity for bacteria to grow.
MANAGING A BOUT OF GASTRO
• Stay hydrated by drinking lots of sips of water if you can.
• If you can’t keep fluids down, wait till the vomiting has passed and rehydrate then by drinking plenty of water or taking an oral rehydration solution from your pharmacy.
• Get plenty of rest.
• Seek medical assistance if you start to get dry mouth, lips or eyes, are urinating infrequently or have yellow urine as these are signs of dehydration.
• Remain vigilant about handwashing. Suffering one bout does not make you immune to contracting the virus a second time.
• Be careful what you eat as you recover. Certain foods could set it off again. Nutritionists recommend avoiding alcohol, milk and fruit juice for a few days.
Photo: iStock (RiotACT recommends getting your hands on a bucket at the first sign of nausea to avoid this scenario)