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New stomach virus surfaces in Ohio

Just as a nationwide flu epidemic appears to have leveled off in Ohio, a new strain of stomach virus has surfaced in state with the potential to spread quickly, according to state health officials.

The state already is experiencing “moderately heavy” levels of the norovirus, which can cause severe diarrhea, vomiting, nausea and stomach cramping, said Tessie Pollock, a spokesman for the Ohio Department of Health.

But the new strain, dubbed GII.4 Sydney after the Australian city where it was first identified earlier this year, has the potential to boost the number of norovirus outbreaks at an alarming rate.

The new strain is now responsible for about 60 percent of norovirus outbreaks nationwide, about three times the number of outbreaks caused by the new strain in September, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported Thursday.

The new strain has been detected in at least four cases in Ohio but is still a small fraction of the 31 norovirus outbreaks reported in the state through mid-December, according to state health department figures.

“It is not known or clear how GII.4 Sydney will impact Ohioans,” Pollock said. “However, at this time, it is not causing more than the usual amount of outbreaks we see this time of year.”

CDC estimates that each year more than 20 million cases of acute gastroenteritis are caused by noroviruses. That means about 1 in every 15 Americans will get norovirus illness each year. Norovirus is also estimated to cause over 70,000 hospitalizations and 800 deaths each year in the United States.

Norovirus outbreaks typically piggyback on the flu season, which hit early and especially hard this year in Ohio, where there have been 3,081 flu-related hospitalizations and a handful of flu-related deaths since October, according to the latest state flu-activity report.

By comparison, there were no flu-related deaths and less than 100 hospitalizations reported over the same period in each of the previous two years.

Still, there are signs the flu viruses have begun to retreat.

There were were only two more hospitalizations last week (586) than in the previous week, and the most recent weekly figure was down 19 percent from the first week of the year, according to the flu report.

“It could be a temporary plateau, or we very well may have seen the peak of the flu season,” Pollock said. “But we won’t know for awhile.”

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