MELBOURNE — The world could be rocked by a gastroenteritis epidemic in the next two to seven months, Australian experts have warned.

Researchers from the Royal Melbourne Hospital’s Victorian Infectious Diseases Reference Laboratory identified a dangerous strain of the virus norovirus, the most common cause of gastro, in Victoria.

Mike Catton, director of the laboratory, said the strain had mutated since first being identified in August 2015 and could now skip around herd immunity.

Catton said the strain was responsible for most cases of gastro, a stomach virus that often causes nausea, vomiting and diarrhea, in Victoria in the last 18 months.

“If this new recombinant has undergone enough change to escape herd immunity and become the next epidemic variant, then from its first detection in Victoria in mid-June 2016, the expected epidemic could be any time between mid-August 2016 and January 2017,” the researchers wrote in their findings, published in European journal Eurosurveillance on Friday.

Based on historic data going back 14 years, the researchers said this particular strain could even spread worldwide and become a pandemic.

“If past trends are followed, then it would have the potential to also predominate in other parts of the world,” they wrote.
“Based on years of experience monitoring new norovirus strains we think that this new strain is genetically different enough to cause an epidemic,” Catton told Fairfax Media on Friday.

Victoria’s chief health officer, Charles Guest, issued an official warning about the impending outbreak.

“As is common with many viruses, norovirus can mutate and, through routine surveillance from our public health laboratories, we know it does so frequently,” Guest told Fairfax on Friday.

“Occasionally the virus changes to become so different that the community has no effective immunity.

“This means that everyone who comes into contact with it is very susceptible to illness; whether contact is with faeces of an infected person or by being close to an infected person who is vomiting.”

Children under five years old and the elderly are most at risk of catching gastro.

– Xinhua