Norovirus Outbreaks Strike Cruise Ships

January 28, 2005
Norwalk-like symptoms have surfaced on several cruise ships over the last few weeks in what appears to be a seasonal rise in the number of Norovirus incidences on land and at sea.

Royal Caribbean has already reported gastrointestinal outbreaks on two separate ships this month. On Mariner of the Seas' January 16 sailing, 276 guests (7.9 percent) and 27 crew members (2.2 percent) came down with Norwalk-like symptoms. Seventy-one guests (4.5 percent) and five crew members (less than 1 percent) experienced illness on Empress of the Seas' January 17 sailing. Itineraries were not affected. In both cases, Norovirus is thought to have been brought onboard by a guest previously exposed to it.

Cleaning procedures and protocols have been stepped up on both ships. Special cleaning products and disinfectants are being used to clean throughout the ships, with extra attention being paid to "high touch" areas such as countertops, restroom surfaces, door handles, railings, light switches, elevator buttons and computer keyboards. The cruise line also provided complimentary over-the-counter medications to afflicted guests on both ships.

But Royal Caribbean isn't the only cruise line dealing with Norovirus woes. We received a note earlier this week from a reader onboard Holland America's Ryndam stating that 277 cases of Norovirus had been documented -- and that the ship skipped a port of call (Montego Bay), sailed directly to Half Moon Key and would be disembarking in Ft. Lauderdale a day early for sanitization. Holland America's public relations executives did not respond to a request for comment.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention defines an "outbreak" as illness rates of 3 percent or higher among passengers or crew. Though often mistakenly referred to as the "cruise ship virus," Norovirus is the second most prevalent illness in the U.S. next to the common cold, and thrives in any closed environment that attracts a lot of people, such as hotels and dormitories.

What can you do to protect yourself from Norovirus while traveling? Pack extra soap, your own supply of Lysol and, just in case, a bottle of Pepto-Bismol.