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The stomach flu is coming to town

By Katie Demeria

Virginians have a lot to look forward to this holiday season -- including the flu.

The Virginia Department of Health released a statement in which it predicted that within the next several weeks residents throughout the state will begin seeing more cases of norovirus, commonly referred to as the stomach flu.

According to Dr. Tommy Ball of Front Royal Family Practice, the norovirus is highly contagious and does not have a vaccine.

"It's a gastrointestinal virus," Ball said. "It really just needs to run its course."

Tim Weaver, nurse manager at Front Royal Family Practice, said it is very important to try and prevent the spread of the norovirus.

"This time of year I would very much stress, with everyone going out touching shopping carts and things like that, that they wash their hands regularly," he added.

While there is no vaccine for the norovirus, the term "flu" is broad and used to refer to various types of illness: including the influenza virus.

The influenza virus also usually strikes the population during the winter months, and has the potential to cause a great deal of damage.

"Probably the most important preventative measure is by vaccination," Ball said. "I do support the CDC's recommendations to vaccinate everyone over six months who does not have contraindications.

"I always think of it as not just protecting yourself," he continued. "We know that if enough people in the community are vaccinated, it's not likely to spread through the community as rapidly."

Vaccination is the No. 1 way, Ball said, that people can prevent themselves from contracting influenza.

There are various strains of the virus that exist, many of which infect different animals. Human strains mix easily with those found in pigs, for example. Those combinations can potentially cause a lot of damage to the population.

Some experts devote their careers to monitoring the influenza virus and attempting to predict how dangerous the strains will be every year.

"It's very hit or miss each season," Ball said.

This year, he added, the vaccinations match the strain that is most likely to hit the population, hopefully preventing a dangerous season such as the 2009 swine flu outbreak, which Ball said was the worst flu season he has seen as a physician.

"A lot of children actually died that winter because of the flu," he added.

The various types of influenza that can hit populations are evident historically, as well. The 1918 Spanish Flu was a form of swine flu.

"And it killed a lot of people," Ball said. "A lot of young, healthy people, which made it even more dangerous."

Ball added that it is unclear how the world today would handle something like the Spanish flu, which killed millions of people. It probably would not reach the same extremes though, he said, due to the benefits of modern medicine.

"The thing a lot of people are afraid of now is the Avian flu," he continued. "It's mostly in China, and mostly spread through birds. It's pretty deadly, so if it were to mix with other strains that spread easily, that could potentially be very dangerous."

Once the influenza virus strikes, it usually lasts about a week. Healthy young people, Ball said, are encouraged to just wait it out. But for those over 65 and young children, there are some medicines that can stop the virus about a day early.

According to Weaver, there have only been two cases of the flu in the area so far.

Contact staff writer Katie Demeria at 540-465-5137 ext. 155, or kdemeria@nvdaily.com

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