Victorian parents have been told to keep their sick children at home amid a surge in cases of highly contagious viral gastroenteritis at childcare centres following the easing of COVID-19 restrictions.

Health authorities have recorded 56 gastroenteritis outbreaks at early learning facilities since the beginning of November, almost three times the number of clusters in the same period last year.

Gastroenteritis is highly contagious and can cause vomiting and diahorrea. Credit:Ryan Stuart

The rise in infections follows a wave of cases earlier this year, with almost 400 outbreaks in childcare centres in March and April – about four times the average number of outbreaks for that time of the year.

Health authorities issued an alert on Wednesday morning, saying the outbreaks had been spurred by an increase in mixing and socialising between children following the lifting of coronavirus restrictions in October.

Chief Health Officer Brett Sutton said the virus spread quickly in settings such as childcare centres, where children played and interacted closely together.

“Camps and other activities where children congregate also provide conditions where bugs can be passed on,” he said.

Professor Sutton said alcohol-based hand sanitisers were less effective in combating viruses such as norovirus, the predominant cause of the current childcare outbreaks.

“A good old-fashioned scrub with soap and warm water is the best way to remove the gastro virus from our hands and prevent passing it on,” he said.

He said children needed to be reminded to wash their hands regularly and be kept at home for at least 48 hours after recovering from the virus.

Viral gastroenteritis is highly infectious and can cause symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, diarrhoea, fever, abdominal pain, headaches and muscle aches, which develop over three days and take up to 48 hours to disappear.

Infectious diseases paediatrician Robert Booy said it most often spreads directly from person to person, but it can also be passed on through the air when tiny particles of the virus found in vomit and diarrhoea become aerosolised.

“Gastro outbreaks are typical of daycare centres, we can expect them regularly, and they can occur in winter or summer,” he said. “This is the way of humankind. We have to bear with the fact that infections are part of our lives, but we also have public health to minimise the impact.”

Professor Booy said parents often sent children with mild symptoms to daycare, who then spread the virus to their peers through not washing their hands or sharing toys and other objects.

“They may have been sent to the daycare without symptoms, but over the course of a few hours develop symptoms of nausea, vomiting or diarrhoea and, before long, they impact other children.”

He said good ventilation helped reduce the spread, but more research needed to be done to fully understand how the virus was transmitted in daycare centres and whether additional hygiene measures would curb infections.

Children and staff at early childhood services who develop vomiting or diarrhoea should stay home for at least 48 hours after their symptoms have disappeared.

Those recovering from the illness or living in the same home as an infected person should avoid visiting high-risk settings such as hospitals, early childhood services and aged care facilities.

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