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Maryland health experts say parents beware, yet another contagious virus may sweep statewide

The University of Maryland Baltimore campus.
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The University of Maryland Baltimore campus.

There’s another virus for parents to be concerned about this winter season, even after RSV and the flu already tore through the state’s youngest residents, according to one pediatric infectious disease expert in Maryland.

That would be the norovirus, and pediatric cases are on the rise, experts told WYPR. It’s commonly called the stomach flu and presents with symptoms of vomiting, diarrhea and fever.

Dr. Matthew Laurens, a pediatric infectious disease specialist at the University of Maryland Medical Center, says his hospital and others around the state are seeing more children coming into the emergency room with stomach ailments and dehydration.

But the volume of pediatric norovirus cases have not yet reached the levels health professionals saw with RSV late last year which overwhelmed hospitals statewide.

RSV stands for Respiratory Syncytial Virus and is known as the common cold. It hospitalized hundreds of people in Maryland in October and November, mostly children.

That severe outbreak was due to children not having the antibodies acclimated to the disease after being isolated during the COVID-19 pandemic. Laurens says the concern is norovirus will follow the same path as RSV.

“People have not been exposed to norovirus in the past few years,” he said. “Therefore, their immunity to norovirus might be on the low end. It might just spread very rapidly through the community like we saw with RSV, like we saw with influenza at the end of 2022. The fear is that it will spread like wildfire through communities because of a low level of community immunity.”

So far, norovirus rates are higher than during the pandemic, but relatively low compared to years before the pandemic.

While there is no recent state data on the disease, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s NoroSTAT program tracks outbreaks across 14 states, which did not include Maryland.

There were 225 cases between Aug. 1 and Jan. 8 in 2022, an uptick of 30% compared to 2021 during the same time frame in those 14 states.

However, it’s been nearly two months since the last reported numbers. Laurens said now is the time when the disease tends to take hold as cold weather forces people into close contact.

“There are billions of infectious virus particles that are shed with each stool or each vomit,” he said. “It only takes a few viral particles to infect someone. It's highly infectious and highly contagious. You can actually get the norovirus infection just by being near someone who's been vomiting.”

Each year across the U.S., norovirus is responsible for 900 deaths, about 109,000 hospitalizations and 1 million pediatric medical care visits.

Laurens says frequent handwashing can deter the disease. The best way to treat norovirus is to replenish fluids lost by vomiting and diarrhea.

Scott is the Health Reporter for WYPR. @smaucionewypr
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