The Health Department has been made aware of the outbreaks in Queensland and Victoria and has issued a statement as a reminder that it is the responsibility of aged care providers to have appropriate infection control practices in place to prevent and manage any outbreak of infectious disease such as gastroenteritis.
A spokesperson for the Australian Government Department of Health reiterated in the statement that providers must report any outbreak to their local Public Health Unit (PHU) and to comply with their relevant state or territory laws and guidelines which govern infection control practices.
“Noroviruses are a major cause of acute gastroenteritis worldwide, often causing outbreaks in institutions particularly child care centres and aged care facilities,” the spokesperson says.
“Under Commonwealth law, providers are required to ensure that they have an effective infection control program in place to minimise the incidence of infection.
“Their infection control practices should be consistent with Australian government infection control guidelines.”
Director of GenWise Health, an online aged care doctors platform, Dr Sebastian Rees says that gastroenteritis is something that he would classify as viral and ‘highly contagious’ and not uncommon in the residential aged care industry.
“Often viral gastroenteritis will affect one initial patient, possibly from an outside source, and then spread to others over the course of a few days to weeks,” he says.
“It has the risks of causing water and electrolyte disturbances in the body which may cause downstream effects such as dehydration, confusion, falls, and even kidney and cardiac dysfunction.
“More vulnerable patients may be affected more severely and death is certainly possible is the infection is severe and dehydration is untreated.”
In correlation with the statement issued by the Department of Health, Dr Rees says protocols being put in place play a huge role in containing and treating cases of gastroenteritis.
“Protocols to minimise the transmission between residents, staff and families are extremely important to prevent widespread infection,” Dr Rees continues.
“Having said that, viral gastroenteritis can be extremely contagious and so may be difficult to contain - early identification and contact precautions are really important.
“In residential aged care there are usually clear protocols in place once a case is suspected and confirmed.”
Symptoms of gastroenteritis can include loose and more frequent bowel motions, abdominal pain, vomiting, loss of interest in food, dehydration, confusion and falls.
Dr Rees reiterates the importance of hand washing and education to aged care staff, patients and visiting family and says that basic principals of treatment include confirming the cause, reducing transmission, hydration and electrolyte replacement and close monitoring for any signs of complications.
It is recommended not to visit aged care facilities or hospitals if you are unwell or presenting any symptoms of gastroenteritis.