New South Wales is experiencing the worst outbreak of rotavirus in five years, and parents have been warned the highly contagious gastro-type illness could harm babies.
“We’re a little over 1,200 for the year and we haven’t seen this many notifications since 2012,” said Dr Vicky Sheppeard, NSW Health’s director of communicable diseases.
She said the highest rate of infection was in children aged two to four, and that metropolitan Sydney was the worst-affected area.
Admissions to the Sydney Children’s Hospital in Randwick were up, too, with babies and toddlers presenting with fever, vomiting and diarrhoea.
“Rotavirus can be really serious, especially in the youngest infants, leading to severe dehydration and even death in some cases,” said Dr Brendan McMullan, a paediatric infectious diseases specialist.
He said the hospital usually saw two patients suffering from rotavirus each month.
“We’ve had 10 cases in August and 12 cases in September, so that’s much more than we usually see,” she said.
Dr Walid Jammal is a GP in at Bella Vista in Sydney’s north-western suburbs.
He said his practice had been busy treating children suffering from rotavirus, and he sent one 18-month-old boy, a twin, to hospital.
Children who are vaccinated can still get the infection but they will not get as sick. (ABC News: Nicole Chettle)
“This child was lying very sort of flat and lethargic in its mothers arms, and with a temperature,” Dr Jammal said.
“He was barely keeping fluid down. His wet nappies were reduced. Clearly, just by looking at him straight away, I knew this child was quite unwell and had to be rehydrated in hospital.”
The rotavirus vaccine is given to babies at two and four months as part of the routine immunisation schedule.
Dr Sheppeard said that in NSW 90 per cent of children received the vaccine but that it did not offer complete protection.
The vaccine also wore after a few years, she said.
“This is preventing what we used to see as severe winter gastro, with many children being hospitalised,” Dr Sheppeard said.
“The vaccine’s doing its job in protecting against hospitalisation and infection in young infants. But the rest of the community is still susceptible.
“Even vaccinated children still can get the infection. They just won’t get as sick.”
Teenagers not immune from deadly gastro bugs
Oscar Henderson, 13, is being treated for rotavirus at Dr Jammal’s clinic.
His mother, Katherine Henderson, said the symptoms began with a headache.
Katherine Henderson with her son, Oscar, being treated for suspected rotavirus. (ABC News: Nicole Chettle)
“Then he started vomiting and it just progressed from there, diarrhoea, temperatures, he went up to close to 40 degrees in his temperature,” she said.
Dr Sheppeard said 2017 had been a bad year for the spread of two separate gastro bugs.
“We’re seeing two main viruses circulating — norovirus, which is highly infectious and responsible for a lot of outbreaks particularly in aged care facilities, but also in childcare centres; and we’re seeing rotavirus circulating in quite high levels in the community,” she said.
“These bugs can live on surfaces, so just the same as flu. You can prevent catching it by carefully washing your hands.”
Dr Sheppeard said health officials believed the structure of the virus might have changed, making people more susceptible to it, and samples had been sent from Sydney to Melbourne for testing.
“Both the bugs norovirus and rotavirus can change their envelope so that the immune system doesn’t recognise them as well,” she said.
“So 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.
“Children, or others that are affected, should stay home for 24 hours after symptoms resolve, so that they’re not going back into school and childcare and spreading the infection.”
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