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Norovirus Becomes Lead Cause of Stomach Illness in Young Children

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Norovirus, a highly contagious virus that can lead to intense vomiting and severe diarrhea, has been identified as the leading cause of stomach illness in children younger than 5.

A new study published in the New England Journal of Medicine shows that norovirus was responsible for nearly 1 million pediatric medical care visits for 2009 and 2010 in the United States, translating into hundreds of millions of dollars in treatment costs each year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said today.

"Infants and young children are very susceptible to norovirus infections, which often result in a high risk of getting dehydrated from the sudden onset of intense vomiting and severe diarrhea," said Dr. Daniel Payne, an epidemiologist in the Division of Viral Diseases at the CDC, in a press release. The virus has also been responsible for sickening hundreds of school-age children at one site, like in this case in 2010.

The study estimates that 1 in 278 U.S. children will be hospitalized for norovirus illness by the time they are 5. About 1 in 14 will visit an emergency room because of it, and 1 in 6 will receive outpatient care for norovirus infections.

To draw their conclusions, researchers tracked 141,000 infants and young children in three counties requiring medical care for acute gastroenteritis, which causes inflammation of the stomach and intestines, from October 2008 through September 2010. Lab tests confirmed the children's illness was prompted by norovirus.

Norovirus was detected in 21 percent of the 1,295 cases of acute gastroenteritis, while rotavirus—for which there has been a vaccine for more than a decade—was found to be the culprit in only 12 percent of the cases.

"Our study reinforces the success of the U.S. rotavirus vaccination program and also emphasizes the value of specific interventions to protect against norovirus illness," Payne said.

The virus spreads mostly through close contact with infected people, and also through contaminated food, water and hard surfaces. The best ways to reduce the risk of an infection are proper hand washing, safe food handling, and good hygiene.

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