An Australian stomach virus is alive and well in Curry County.

Numerous people in the area are being sickened - even hospitalized - for an illness that immediately attacks the gastrointestinal tract.

"People think it's food poisoning," said Jan Kaplan, former director of the county Health and Human Services department and now the CEO for the nonprofit Curry Community Health. "But you don't get food poisoning eight hours after you go to a restaurant and have it for two days."

The virus can, however, be transmitted from infected food-service employees, as it did at the Oregon Zoo earlier this week.

Kaplan said the stuffy-nose, head-cold virus that has been going around the county has sometimes been misidentified as influenza, which has struck the nation by storm this winter. But as it has ebbed, this virus - a norovirus - has come to the forefront of those in the health care industry.

"It's reaching outbreak (proportions) around the whole Western United States," Kaplan said. "It's always present, but about every four years, the strain changes. And it's rarely lethal."

According to a Oregon Public Health Division communicable disease newsletter, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention last November announced that a new strain, called GII.4 Sydney, originated in Sydney, Australia, and was confirmed in Oregon Dec. 10.

"Influenza is now really picking up," says Dr. Paul Cieslak of the state Public Health division. "This virus is just unbelievably contagious."

In December alone, authorities learned of 34 outbreaks or clusters of norovirus cases, most of them in nursing homes, schools and restaurants.

Kaplan said many people have called asking or complaining about the illness, but he has no firm numbers as it is not a "required reportable" illness, like, for example, measles.

The norovirus is the most common cause of acute gastroenteritis in the United States, with about 21 million cases reported each year. In Oregon, that equates to about 260,000 illnesses, 900 hospitalizations and 10 deaths.

Locally, there have been reports of people falling ill at Sea View Senior Living Community, Kaplan.

"I guess it was pretty serious at Sea View," he said. "It spreads quickly through enclosed residences."

Sandy Hicks, director at Sea View, confirmed that "several residents got it."

"We were definitely hit," he said. "But as of today (Friday), none of our residents are showing signs of symptoms."

Sandy said Sea View's staff worked diligently 24 hours a day during the outbreak, using bleach to clean door knobs, drinking fountains and other items every hour, on the hour.

To help stop the spread of the virus, Sea View posted "Stop" signs on exterior doors, warning visitors that the virus was present. At the same time, similar signs were placed on doors of residents who had symptoms.

The symptoms are different than those of the cold and cough virus that just made its rounds. The G11.4 virus symptoms can include nausea, vomiting, non-bloody diarrhea and abdominal cramps. A general malaise and headaches are common, and low-grade fevers are present in about half the cases. The misery lasts 24 to 72 hours.

Noroviruses can be serious, especially among the young, old and people with compromised immune systems.

And they are remarkably contagious, the CDC reports. An infected person sheds billions of norovirus particles in their stool or vomitus, and it takes as few as 18 of these particles to infect another person.

The virus is sweeping the country; a simple Google search on the Internet shows outbreaks from coast to coast, affecting thousands of people.

As many as 30 percent of those exposed to the norovirus will not be affected.

The outbreaks identified most commonly in Oregon are those spread from person to person in long-term-care facilities, schools, daycare centers and outpatient clinics. Nearly two-thirds of Oregon's norovirus outbreaks have been in long-term-care facilities, the newsletter said.

Macklyn House administrator Beth Russ said there were a couple of residents at the long-term care facility affected in the past week.

"But it's almost gone," she said. "If you catch it, you rest, keep to yourself. We brought trays to their apartments instead of them going to the dining room. We wear gloves any time they need help, and masks, especially if a resident has some cough or cold. It's pretty much common sense."

Judy Kitchen, director of the Good Samaritan Society Curry Village said they've dodged the norovirus -so far.

"If someone does develop something, we keep them in their rooms so they don't spread it," she said. "We have had a couple of chest colds and pneumonia, but nothing severe. Six or seven years ago, it hit real bad here. After that, we took all precautions to prevent that from happening again."