Norovirus Strikes Freedom of the Seas

December 4, 2006
Just a week after my cruise ended on Freedom of the Seas (November 19 - 26), Royal Caribbean is announcing that the ship reported a fairly significant percentage of folks suffering from Norovirus on the post-Thanksgiving voyage (November 26 - December 3). According to a statement from the line, 338 of 3,832 passengers (approximately 9 percent) and 43 of 1,402 crewmembers (approximately 3 percent) experienced symptoms of gastrointestinal illness, which included nausea and diarrhea. Affected passengers were given over-the-counter medications such as Immodium and Pepto Bismol, and according to a spokesman, responded well.

But here's how random Norovirus can be: I was onboard Freedom of the Seas for the cruise that ended in Miami on November 26 -- the start date of the affected sailing -- and didn't hear of any passengers getting sick (a spokesman for the line tells us that only 1.5 percent of passengers and 0.86 percent of crewmembers reported gastrointestinal symptoms on my cruise, which is well below the 3 percent mark at which cruise lines must report the outbreak to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention).

Frankly, I would have expected more germs to spread on the holiday voyage, which was packed with kids celebrating Thanksgiving at sea. But I'll tell you this: The ship, particularly its food areas, was immaculate. Strategically placed hand sanitizers were well frequented.

Unfortunately, if even one person brings gastrointestinal illness into an enclosed area -- not just cruise ships, but also schools, hospitals, etc. -- it can spread like wildfire. According to the CDC, Norovirus affects 23 million Americans annually, making it the second most prevalent illness next to the common cold.

In response to the outbreak, Royal Caribbean is stepping up cleaning procedures onboard Freedom of the Seas, which include the use of special cleaning products and disinfectants through the ship; close attention will be paid to "high touch" areas such as countertops, restroom and vanity surfaces, door handles, railings and grab bars, exercise equipment, TV remote controls, light switches, elevator buttons and computer keyboards. Two additional doctors and one additional nurse joined the ship, bringing the total number of doctors onboard to four, along with four nurses.

What can you do to steer clear of Norovirus? First and foremost, wash your hands often. I always carry a trial size bottle of hand sanitizer (just make sure it is properly packed if you intend to carry it onboard a plane). For more information, see Norovirus: What You Need to Know.

Freedom of the Seas set sail as scheduled yesterday for its current weeklong cruise.

--by Melissa Baldwin, Senior Editor