Australia has made the international news headlines this week, but for all the wrong reasons.
A highly infectious strain of gastroenteritis, known as Sydney 2012 – aptly named after it was first discovered by Australian researchers last year – has seen more than one million Europeans succumb to severe nausea, vomiting and diarrhoea.
The mutant strain of norovirus has caused so much havoc, with the closure of affected workplaces, schools, hospital wards, aged-care facilities and even cruise ships, that one British newspaper chose to dub it the “chunder from down under” in its news headlines.
Researchers in Sydney first uncovered the strain of virus, identified as belonging to the notorious GII.4 pandemic-causing noroviruses, last March. Analysis of the virus’s genetic makeup found it was a combination of two strains from Japan and Holland, and would have emerged in a patient who was infected with both viruses at the same time.
The hybrid strain is believed to be no more virulent than any other strain of norovirus, but its unusual creation, which allowed two strains to ‘swap genetic material’, means it can evade even the strongest of immune systems.
“Even if you’ve had a norovirus infection in the past it won’t protect you from this one,” warned Dr John-Sebastian Eden, who helped to uncover the virus’ genetic sequence.
Sydney 2012 is believed to have been responsible for almost all cases of gastroenteritis in New Zealand and up to 75 per cent of cases in South Australia. The unpopular export has even spread across the Tasman to the UK, USA, Japan, Belgium, France and Denmark.
Professor Peter White, a molecular virologist at the University of New South Wales and a part of the team who first identified Sydney 2012, has warned that as many as 400,00 Australians could be affected by the virus in the coming winter months.
“Prevention is the best defence, and the person who has the illness has an important job in trying not to give it to family members and work colleagues,” White said.
“Don’t go to work until at least two days after you feel well, and don’t visit hospitals and other institutions like childcare centres and old peoples homes. Keep rehydrated as you can lose a lot of fluids.”