Suspected Norovirus Outbreak Delays Zuiderdam

November 10, 2008

A suspected Norovirus outbreak onboard Holland America's Zuiderdam has resulted in an extensive cleaning -- and subsequent delay -- of the 85,000-ton, 1,848-passenger ship.

According to the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 261 of 1,820 (14.34 percent) passengers onboard the 17-night trans-Atlantic cruise that departed October 23 fell ill with Norovirus-like symptoms, though Norovirus has not yet been confirmed as the cause of the gastrointestinal outbreak; 17 of 794 (2.14 percent) crewmembers were sick.

In response to the outbreak, staff from the CDC's Vessel Sanitation Program boarded Zuiderdam yesterday when it arrived in Ft. Lauderdale to assess the situation and make recommendations. The most drastic: Embarkation of the ship's November 9 voyage to the Caribbean and Panama Canal was delayed to allow for additional cleaning and disinfection, which also pushed the departure of the ship back. Embarkation for the Sunday, November 9, Caribbean and Panama Canal cruise began at 9 p.m. yesterday with the ship sailing early this morning at 1 a.m. Because of the delayed departure, one port -- Half Moon Cay, Bahamas -- will be missed.

Guests on the affected sailing were notified of the change on November 5, according to a company statement. A shipboard credit in the amount of $14.74 (a refund of government taxes at the missed port) is being provided to each guest, in addition to $75 as a gesture of goodwill to cover meals and the general inconvenience. Guests who arrived at the port prior to the 9 p.m. embarkation were able to drop off their luggage; HAL operated shuttles from a hospitality room to nearby shopping and restaurant areas. Guests were also given the option to switch sailing dates or cancel without penalty.

Other measures taken by the cruise line and crew onboard include:

During the cruise, guests who became ill were asked to remain in their cabins to prevent spreading germs.

Upon arrival in Ft. Lauderdale, additional cruise staff and outside contractors boarded the ship to support increased cleaning and disinfection efforts, with concentration on crew cabins, public areas, carpets, linens, and areas that are touched by guests and crew such as elevator buttons, railings, books, exercise equipment, walls and door jams.

Public health staff also joined the ship to assist with outbreak management and control.

Cruise lines are required to issue a special notification to the CDC when 3 percent or more of passengers or crew have reported symptoms of gastrointestinal illness.

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.

Which begs the question: How can travelers setting sail -- especially on a ship with a recent history of outbreak -- avoid affliction? I am actually boarding Zuiderdam later this month for a Panama Canal cruise, and I intend to take the same precautions I always take (with a little extra gusto): washing my hands constantly and making use of the hand sanitizer placed strategically throughout the ship or in my own handbag.

For more information about Norovirus, check out Norovirus - What You Need to Know and Demystifying the Myths of Norovirus.

--by Melissa Baldwin Paloti, Managing Editor