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Tracking the nasty symptoms of the stomach flu

A new surveillance system could predict norovirus outbreaks across Ontario

The norovirus, more commonly known as the “stomach flu,” is the second most common illness in Canada, but researchers say it often goes unreported. To determine the prevalence of norovirus infections and manage future outbreaks, U of G researchers are developing an early warning surveillance system.

Ontario Veterinary College PhD student Stephanie HughesEstablishing a syndromic health surveillance system (the surveillance of symptoms potentially caused by the norovirus) could help experts predict the spread of the illness. Public health officials can be alerted earlier than ever, according to Stephanie Hughes, a PhD student in the Ontario Veterinary College’s Department of Population Medicine.

“Norovirus goes underreported because often people don’t want to leave the house when they are sick,” says Hughes. “Also because they believe the sickness will fade. Unfortunately, people will vomit for up to 48 hours and can remain lethargic and infectious for weeks.”

Researchers are currently obtaining datasets from three sources to develop the system and better understand the spread of the virus. They will use information from Ontario public health-care sources and from Telehealth, the Ontario medical advice number.

The datasets will include lab submissions of norovirus in Ontario, reported outbreaks of norovirus in health institutions, and calls to Telehealth about vomiting. This will help increase our understanding of the prevalence and severity of the virus within populations. The system will then track the disease by monitoring how patients seek early medical help, using the calls to Telehealth.

Additionally, researchers are identifying gaps in reporting statistics to support their data sets. They aim to combine the surveillance system with regular lab detection to track the virus accurately.

Health-care providers can focus on more severe diseases and target financial resources if the public takes early action during outbreaks. This can help practitioners and health-care systems minimize the spread of cases, and help the economy by decreasing overall health-care costs.

More than just saving money, the system can help vulnerable populations, such as infants and elders, who are at greater risk of mortality and long-term effects from the virus. Alerting affected areas through the surveillance system could reduce those risks by urging all populations, including vulnerable individuals and their caregivers, to seek medical care.

“I want people to become more aware of norovirus. It can be lethal or cause long-term symptoms for certain populations that are avoidable if we control the spread of cases, and if people are aware,” says Hughes.

Hughes plans to create surveillance systems for other diseases once the norovirus surveillance system is complete.

She worked with Prof. Andrew Papadopoulos, who helped fund the study along with funding from the Ontario Veterinary College Scholarship and travel scholarships from the University of Guelph and the Canadian Institutes of Health Research.

(Article by OVC SPARK writer Sydney Pearce)