Gastrointestinal craziness this week, as two large cruise ships returned to port early because of a large number of sick passengers. First, the Royal Caribbean returned to its port two days early because 600 passengers fell ill, and just yesterday Princess Cruises returned early to a Houston port with almost 200 passengers ill. The suspected culprit: the very contagious norovirus.
Ugh. What a way to upstage a vacation. But with more travelers taking cruises, and the cruise ships’ environment of close contact with many people, more travelers are at risk for gastrointestinal illnesses. The norovirus is the most common gastrointestinal infection, and it can be serious for the elderly or younger children. It is passed on through another infected person, contaminated food, or touching contaminated surfaces.
So what can you do?
1) Be vigilant about cleanliness. It may be obvious to wash your hands before you eat, after you use the toilet, after changing diapers, etc. But, you should also wash your hands before brushing teeth, after you blow your nose, and after coming in contact with anyone infected.
2) HOW you wash your hands matters. Washing with soap and water is the BEST way to reduce microbes. Wash for 20 seconds… dry your hands… and make sure you use a paper towel to turn off the faucet and use door knob afterward.
**Many cruise ships have set up hand sanitizer dispensers around the ship for prevention – but do not slip into a false state of feeling protected. Hand sanitizer has to be at least 60% alcohol based to be effective (difficult to verify if the cruise ship is using that) AND is still doesn’t eliminate all germs like soap and water. It can reduce the number of microbes, so sanitizer doesn’ t hurt, but it shouldn’t be a substitute for washing with soap.
If you do choose to supplement with hand sanitizer, make sure you are using it properly for it to work – people often don’t use enough volume, or may wipe it off before it is completely dried. Be patient and let it dry.
3) Immediately wash any soiled clothes that could be contaminated, and if you have to handle them, wash your hands afterward.
4) If at all possible, avoid touching railings on the stairs, elevator buttons, door knobs. Wash hands immediately after if you do. Use your knuckles to press elevator buttons and have tissue handy for doorknobs.
The CDC is investigating both cruise outbreaks, and has a vessel sanitation program that evaluates the effectiveness of prevention and control strategies on board. Get this: the manual for cleaning these large cruise ships is 267 pages long! The sanitation crew has to disinfect every inch – including bedside Bibles.
Passengers who are affected, can request a copy of the CDC final report at FOIARequests@cdc.gov
All this being said – the number of cruise ship outbreaks is actually on a decline, even as more passengers choose to cruise.