Authorities in New South Wales (NSW) and Queensland (QLD) are reporting a spike in the number of rotavirus cases being reported in children under five years old.
The number of people suffering from the virus, which is the most common cause of severe gastroenteritis in children and babies, is reaching levels not experienced in the last five years.
The reason for the surge is unknown, leading health officials to consider whether the structure of the virus has changed, making people more susceptible to it. Dr Vicky Sheppeard, NSW Healths director of communicable diseases, confirmed they were investigating this.
We have sent off samples to the reference laboratories to see if there is a change in the coding of the virus that is also making people less immune to it. she said.
The current outbreak in NSW is the worst for five years with over 1300 cases recorded by NSW Health in 2017, already more than triple the 412 cases reported last year.
Children aged between 2 and 4 years old based in metropolitan Sydney are the worst affected, with Sydney Childrens Hospital reporting between 5 and 6 times more hospitalizations from the virus than in average years.
In QLD, its a similar story with over 1527 recorded cases so far in 2017, more than double the number of cases in previous years. Over 230 people have been hospitalized due to contracting the virus this year.
Rotavirus is a highly contagious virus passed on via the fecal-oral route. It most commonly affects babies and young children up to the age of five.
In Australia, there are approximately 2 deaths every year due to rotavirus, with thousands more people requiring hospitalization.
Symptoms of rotavirus include fever, diarrhea, vomiting and stomach cramps. It takes 1 to 3 days after becoming infected to start showing symptoms. Symptoms can last from 3 to 7 days.
The virus is passed from person to person by touching contaminated hands or feces. It can also be passed on via objects (such as toys) and through food and drink. There have been many cases of infected food handlers passing on the virus to others by preparing food items with unwashed hands.
The problem is worsened by rotavirus being asymptomatic in many adults. This means that they may be carrying the virus but not show any symptoms, and so may not pay as much attention to important tasks like hand washing as they may have done if they actually felt sick.