Viral Gastroenteritis In Residential Aged Care

Page last updated: 23 November 2016

This information was distributed 26th June 2014

Outbreaks of gastroenteritis commonly occur in residential aged care, affecting both residents and staff.  Outbreaks are often caused by noroviruses, which are a group of highly infectious viruses that can cause diarrhoea, stomach pain and vomiting.  Although gastroenteritis from norovirus was once referred to as “winter vomiting disease”, it is now known that gastroenteritis caused by norovirus occurs throughout the year.  The elderly and immunocompromised are particularly vulnerable to norovirus infection and are more likely to suffer severe outcomes and longer durations of illness.

Norovirus is highly infectious and is spread by the vomit or faeces of an infected person, either from close contact with infected persons, contact with contaminated surfaces or consuming contaminated food or drink. Norovirus is often transmitted from person-to-person on unwashed hands.

The following four important steps can help prevent the occurrence and spread of gastroenteritis caused by norovirus:

  1. Good hand hygiene

Ensure your staff practice good hand hygiene.  Hand washing is the single most effective intervention to reduce the risk of catching or transmitting gastroenteritis.  Good hand washing involves washing hands with liquid soap and water using a good technique.  Hand washing can be supplemented with the use of alcohol based gel or hand rub, but in norovirus outbreaks, alcohol based hand hygiene products are not sufficient to prevent transmission.

  1. Stay home if you are unwell

Any visitor or staff member who is unwell with symptoms of gastroenteritis (diarrhoea and/or vomiting) should not visit or work at a residential aged care facility.  It is recommended that you erect signage which reinforces this message directing visitors with symptoms of gastroenteritis to return home. Visitors and staff with these symptoms should not return to the residential aged care facility for at least 48 hours after symptoms have resolved. Any staff becoming unwell at work should report their illness and should be sent home immediately.

  1. Become familiar with available resources

An important way of helping to prevent outbreaks is to make sure all staff members are very familiar with the national guidelines on preventing outbreaks in residential aged care.

The Commonwealth Department of Health has developed a number of resources to assist in the control of gastroenteritis outbreaks. These are available on its website.  Of particular relevance for residential aged care is the Gastro-Info Gastroenteritis Kit for Aged Care: resources to assist residential aged care homes in preventing, identifying & managing outbreaks of gastroenteritis.

  1. Report every incidence of two or more people becoming ill with gastroenteritis symptoms

Immediately report any suspected outbreak of gastroenteritis in accordance with your jurisdictional notification requirements. Public Health Unit staff can provide advice on the likely cause of such outbreaks and advise you of control measures to prevent further transmission.

For more information or if you have any questions or concerns, please contact your local Public Health Unit.