Focus on tackling outbreaks of stomach sickness in Northumberland

There were 44 stomach-bug outbreaks in Northumberland care homes last year, with another 14 reported in county schools over the last three years.

By Ben O'Connell
Monday, 15 April, 2019, 11:33
Northumberland County Council. Picture by Jane Coltman

Gastrointestinal (GI) infection, its impact and the systems in place to deal with it, was the focus of an annual assurance report, which concluded that there are no major concerns relating to health-protection arrangements in the county.

The council’s director of public health has a statutory responsibility for health protection, which includes planning and response to threats to public health such as infectious disease, environmental hazards and contamination, and extreme weather.

GI infections are very common and often self-limiting (ie, they go away by themselves without treatment), but they can place a significant burden on health and social-care services, and impact on workplace and school absence.

Three of the causes of GI infection – nororvirus, campylobacter and rotavirus – are estimated to cost the UK more than £150million each year.

Care homes are the most common setting for outbreaks (two or more linked cases) in the region and, in 2018, among the 70 registered care homes in Northumberland, there were 44 outbreaks of diarrhoea and vomiting, one more than in 2017.

From January 2016 to February 2019, 14 outbreaks of GI illness in Northumberland schools were reported to Public Health England (PHE), however, schools – unlike care homes – are not required to notify PHE of outbreaks, so the actual number is likely to be higher.

Controlling the spread of infection mainly relies on hand hygiene, ie, washing them properly, and the 48-hour rule – the period people should stay away from school or work after symptoms have gone as you may remain infectious.

And it was this latter aspect that members of Northumberland County Council’s health and wellbeing board, which discussed this report last Thursday (April 11), raised concerns about, saying that this message needed to be reinforced, because concerns about absence in schools and workplaces, including in the NHS itself, were overriding the advice.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

In terms of other areas of health protection, uptake of the three cancer-screening programmes (breast, cervical and bowel) in Northumberland is higher than both regional and national averages, however, this masks inequalities between areas and work is ongoing to address this.

Generally, the uptake of immunisations in the county is about the same or better than the England average, although it also varies by local area and GP practice.

The report stated that cases of mumps spiked in Northumberland in 2017 at a rate of 15.8 per 100,000 population, which was significantly higher than the England average and previous years, highlighting ‘the importance of good MMR vaccination coverage’.

The county’s MMR uptake is higher than the national average, however, further action is needed to meet the 95 per cent population coverage required.

There was one local ‘incident of significance’ since the last report, which related to school-based immunisations.

It came to light that children in some alternative education providers may not have been offered them. The children who had not been offered vaccinations were identified and a catch-up programme put into place.

Ben O'Connell, Local Democracy Reporting Service