As the end of the year approaches, the incidence of Winter Vomiting Virus inevitably increases. This year, scientists have traced the recent outbreak of the Norovirus back to the tiny village of Barhum in Northumberland, and have given it the code SRSV12 - better known locally as the Barhum Bug.
Although they know SRSV12 started in the vicinity of Barhum, scientists at the Health Protection Agency are at a loss to explain why. The small community is not typical of most contagious disease epicentres.
Surrounded by steep hills, Barhum is one of the most isolated villages in England. It has a population of fewer than two thousand, one shop, a small church and a pub. There is only one major employer based in the village; Nosophoros Biotech, a company specialising in the development of biochemical agents.
Carrie Jerms lives in the village and works at Nosophoros, where she has two jobs. "I'm a lab assistant in the Airborne Antagonists Section from eight a.m. 'till eleven. Then a quick hand wipe and a dust off of my lab coat and I'm ready for my other role - cook in the staff canteen. I finish at three, which leaves me plenty of time for my hobbies."
Carrie spends the afternoons as a volunteer visitor to local hospitals. She also runs a home business, making sweets which she sells on the Internet to customers all over the UK. "Nosophoros is a great company if you want job sharing or part-time work," Carrie told me, "Loads of us do it. For instance, my husband is a milkman in the mornings, and then uses his van to do the Biohazard collections for the Nosophoros factory in the afternoons. And before she got sick, my sister was on the pick-and-mix in the shop, but also did the early shift in the Nosophoros chemical spills team."
"This Bug thing has been a bit of a pain, though. There're lots of people down with it. Mind you, if someone gets ill in a small place like this we all go round to cheer them up and share a bowl of soup. And if any of the kiddies get sick we usually send them away to stay with relatives until they feel better."
So what does Carrie think about Barhum's new-found fame as the epicentre of the Bug outbreak? "Well things here are much the same. We stick with all the old traditions; spitting in your palm before shaking hands, licking the doorknob on the way into church, that sort of thing. We even still have the communal village hankie that dates back to 1902."
In spite of Barhum's isolation, the Bug has now become a country-wide epidemic. Does Carrie have any ideas about why this would be? "Actually, yes, now you come to mention it. Last month Mrs. Gobber saw a hedgehog turn around on a Tuesday - always a sign of pestilence. And old Mr. Rickets reckoned he heard frogs croaking before sunset, just past the bit in the river where the warm orange sluice-water comes out the Nosophoros factory."
So the mystery of the Barhum Bug continues, but ordinary life in the village goes on. Next week Nosophoros Biotech are holding their annual open day where visitors can look around the laboratories, play with the animals and take part in group activities like bobbing for apples. The parish church has organised a cuddly toy exchange for the sick children of the village on Sunday, and at the local pub, The Yellow Jack, they are extending their range of free bar snacks. Meanwhile, the town council must debate the planning application to have basins fitted in the pub toilets.
Carrie, too, is busy in the run-up to Christmas. "I still have the village Christmas pudding to make, and the tradition in the village is that everyone gets to lick the spoon and give the mixture a stir for luck. Then we send tiny amounts out with all our Christmas cards, and keep a bit to add to next year's pudding. Round here we don't really have time to worry about the Barhum Bug."