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Norovirus cases on the rise in region

Young hit hardest by stomach bug

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By Stephen Smith
Globe Staff / February 24, 2011

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A wave of vomiting and diarrhea is sweeping across metropolitan Boston as the gastrointestinal ailment norovirus makes its annual winter appearance, especially among the young.

The Boston Conservatory, a private college specializing in music, dance, and theater, has endured a suspected outbreak of the viral infection, with at least 61 students, faculty, and staff falling ill, according to the Boston Public Health Commission.

Citywide, hospital emergency rooms had a surge of patients last week with gastrointestinal ailments, accounting for 3 percent of all ER visits. The week before, gastrointestinal illnesses accounted for 2.2 percent of visits. Young children appeared to be the hardest hit, said Dr. Anita Barry, top disease tracker at the city health agency.

“Unfortunately, with norovirus, you don’t need very much of it to make people sick,’’ Barry said. “We think the major route of transmission is people not having adequate hygiene.’’

Unlike diseases such as influenza or measles, which spread through the air, norovirus migrates when people who harbor the germ do not wash their hands after using the toilet and then have contact with other people, food, or surfaces.

The symptoms can prove decidedly uncomfortable but rarely present a serious health threat, except in those whose immune systems are already compromised, or among the very young or old.

There’s no pill to make the virus go away. So when doctors at Harvard Vanguard Medical Associates encountered a steady stream of tummy-clutching patients in recent days, they focused on making sure patients remained sufficiently hydrated. If symptoms persist, doctors sometimes offer antinausea medication or pain relief.

“Even in people who are considered healthy, you could get sick enough that you really can’t function, so that’s lost time, lost productivity, and just overall feeling pretty awful’’ — although, usually, for just a few days at most, said Dr. Elisa Choi, an infectious disease specialist at Harvard Vanguard’s Kenmore branch.

At the Boston Conservatory’s campus, Beth Grampetro, director of wellness services, said she grew concerned that a gastrointestinal bug was making the rounds on campus Feb. 15, when two or three people called complaining of the same ailment.

“So I felt it was something the Public Health Commission needed to know,’’ Grampetro said.

A campuswide alert was issued, and the city health agency offered advice about stanching the spread of the virus. Bathrooms and common areas were sanitized more frequently and, if it wasn’t already included, bleach was added to cleaning solutions.

If food was being served at campus events, items that were on platters or otherwise shared were individually wrapped to forestall contamination with norovirus.

By yesterday, the outbreak at the undergraduate conservatory, which has about 700 students, appeared to have been silenced, with no long-lasting health consequences.

“It certainly wasn’t convenient for staff or faculty or students to not be able to participate in their activities or rehearsals for a couple of days. People really hate to miss things,’’ Grampetro said. “But luckily, people who weren’t feeling well are feeling better now.’’

Stephen Smith can be reached at stsmith@globe.com.