The Department of Health has warned that viral gastroenteritis is on the rise in Victorian early childhood education and care services.

Youngsters mix and congregate closely with other children and adults in care settings, and readily pass the bugs on to others and bring them home to family members.

There have been 104 outbreaks of viral gastroenteritis in childcare centres up to February 23 this year. The average for the same period over the past five years is 63.

Health officials advise handwashing with soap and water is the best defence against the bug.

Victoria’s chief health officer Brett Sutton said childcare workers, children and their families all had a role to play in limiting the spread of the virus.

Professor Sutton said children needed to be taught and reminded of the need for handwashing, and families needed to keep their children home from early childhood services until 48 hours after they recover.

“Gastroenteritis can spread quickly through settings such as early childhood education and care services, where children play and interact closely with each other and their carers and can readily spread their bugs,” he said.

“It is important that early childhood services have good hygiene practices in place and to respond quickly with thorough and appropriate cleaning and disinfection if any children become ill.

“With the COVID-19 pandemic, disinfecting hands with alcohol-based hand rubs has become routine, but these are less effective for gastro bugs.

“Handwashing with soap and water is still the best personal hygiene method to minimize the chance of spreading the virus.

“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 to infect others.”

Another upsurge of viral gastro late last year saw 56 outbreaks in the six weeks to mid-December. At the start of 2021, after a COVID lockdown was eased, 389 outbreaks were detected in childcare settings up to the end of April – four times higher than the average for that time of year.

Viral gastroenteritis is highly infectious. Symptoms include nausea, vomiting, diarrhoea, fever, abdominal pain, headache and muscle aches. They can take up to three days to develop and usually last between one or two days, sometimes longer. In rare cases it can develop into much more serious illness.

Infants or children in early childhood services or schools, as well as staff who develop vomiting or diarrhoea should stay at home for at least 48 hours after their symptoms have stopped. If symptoms are severe or they persist, people are advised to see a GP for advice and testing.

Anyone recovering from gastroenteritis should avoid visiting hospitals, early childhood services and aged care facilities to avoid spreading the infection to the most vulnerable.