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Selkirk Place seniors’ home in Victoria on July 31, 2013.Chad Hipolito/The Canadian Press

Nine people have died in a Victoria care home over the past three weeks as a norovirus outbreak swept through the facility and infected 159 people. But health officials say the situation isn't cause for alarm.

Noroviruses are highly contagious and cause severe vomiting, cramps and diarrhea, but symptoms generally clear up on their own within two or three days.

Though it's very rare for so many deaths to happen during an outbreak, officials say noroviruses are especially hard on care-home residents, such as those in the Selkirk Place facility where the outbreak happened.

"For somebody who is elderly and in very fragile health, it's a stressor their body really cannot tolerate," said Richard Stanwick, chief medical health officer for the Vancouver Island Health Authority (VIHA). "While it may not be the primary cause of death … it's that additional stressor."

In confined settings such as hospitals, care homes, schools or cruise ships, noroviruses spread fast, Dr. Stanwick said. Of Selkirk Place's 200 residents, 106 were infected with the norovirus bug since July 11, along with 53 staff, according to the VIHA.

Dr. Stanwick said the outbreak now seems to have been contained, with only 11 residents still showing symptoms. Once the care home has gone 48 hours without a new case, the outbreak can be declared over.

"It was unfortunate … if we're able to get on top of it and it doesn't affect a significant number of people early, we can isolate it to one floor or ward," Dr. Stanwick said. But in Selkirk Place, more than 30 people became ill at once, he said, making the outbreak very hard to contain.

Though the cause is still under investigation, multiple health officials said a food source is most likely to have caused such a widespread initial outbreak.

"Selkirk Place staff have been doing everything we asked of them to keep it under control, they've been fully compliant," Dr. Stanwick said, adding that the facility was built in 2008 with modern standards, including easy-to-clean surfaces that are meant to help contain outbreaks.

Barb McLintock of the B.C. Coroners Service said the situation has not raised any red flags so far. She said a natural virus spreading through a care home is generally left up to the local public health authority to investigate and contain.

The province has seen numerous norovirus outbreaks recently. Two summer camps on Vancouver Island were temporarily closed due to norovirus, and two hospitals in the Vancouver area had to seal off wards to contain outbreaks in January. Victoria's Harbour Towers hotel had an outbreak in 2012 that saw more than 100 people infected.

Bonnie Henry, director of public health emergency management with the B.C. Centre for Disease Control, said the province does not see a higher rate of norovirus outbreaks than anywhere else in Canada, though it sometimes may seem that way.

"We have laboratory testing for norovirus here, and not every lab does because the testing for it is quite tricky," Dr. Henry said. "Our lab has developed some very rapid testing, so we actually confirm it often more than some other provinces who don't have access to the same type of testing."

Dr. Henry said her lab can confirm norovirus within 24 to 48 hours of a sample arriving, usually a stool sample though food samples sometimes work as well.

She added that aside from the unfortunately high number of residents succumbing to the stress of the virus, nothing about the Selkirk Place outbreak seemed unusual to her.

Michael Garmer, an infectious-disease specialist with Toronto's University Health Network, said noroviruses are particularly good at rapidly spreading through a hospital or care home.

"It's kind of a perfect facility pathogen," Dr. Garmer said. "It's highly contagious, and it can live in the environment for a very long period of time. And the worst part about it is that even if you've had it once, you don't develop lasting immunity."

"It's something we deal with all the time, and once it gets going, it's very hard to stop."