(March 4, 7:44 p.m. EST) -- It's been a busy week for the stomach bug, which has recently found its way onboard several cruise ships. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is reporting the biggest outbreak on Holland America's Maasdam, where 168 of 1,211 passengers (14 percent) have come down with a gastrointestinal illness. The ship is sailing a 14-night Panama Canal itinerary out of San Diego, and two CDC staff members will meet the ship when it docks in Fort Lauderdale on Friday.
A statement from Holland America says that in order to "thoroughly sanitize and disinfect all public and crew areas" on Maasdam, it will embark passengers late, at 3 p.m. Friday, and depart Fort Lauderdale at 7 p.m. on its next Panama Canal cruise. Shuttles have been arranged to take embarking guests to Fort Lauderdale's 17th Street restaurant and shopping district while they wait. Passengers also have the right to cancel their booking on the March 5 sailing for a full refund or alternative sailing date.
Also this week, several passengers on Royal Caribbean's Vision of the Seas exhibited symptoms of gastrointestinal illness during a four-night cruise out of Sao Paulo (Santos), Brazil. According to a company statement, Brazilian health authorities prevented passengers from coming ashore in Buzios, but the ship is expected to conclude the sailing as scheduled tomorrow. Two other ships -- Royal Caribbean's Jewel of the Seas and Celebrity's Millennium -- also on itineraries scheduled to end tomorrow, have notified the CDC of stomach bug outbreaks affecting fewer than 10 percent of passengers. And a week ago, nearly 23 percent of passengers on Celebrity's Mercury became ill with the Norovirus, causing the ship's next sailing to be delayed by a day for additional sanitation.
Although health officials are still investigating the causes of this week's outbreaks, the likely culprit behind these recent bouts of gastrointestinal illness is the Norovirus. The term Norovirus actually encompasses a group of viruses that can affect the stomach and intestines (it is often called the "stomach flu," even though it is not related to influenza). Symptoms include nausea, vomiting, diarrhea and abdominal cramps. Norovirus is highly contagious and spreads rapidly wherever there are many people confined to a small area, like nursing homes, restaurants, hotels, dormitories ... and cruise ships. Cruise lines are required to issue a special notification to the CDC when 2 percent or more of passengers or crew have reported symptoms of gastrointestinal illness. For more information, see our article on Norovirus - What You Need to Know .
--by Erica Silverstein, Senior Editor