Q. A few months ago, there were reports of widespread illness on several cruise ships. What kind of illness is it and how is it spread?
A. The illness found on several cruise ships this year is caused by the Norwalk virus. Such illness is nothing new. In fact, it’s the second leading cause of illness in the United States. The virus spreads in areas in which people are in close quarters for an extended period of time.
According to the American CDC, only 10% of “Norwalk-like” virus outbreaks occur in vacation settings, like on cruise ships. The virus causes stomach flu, and symptoms include nausea, vomiting, diarrhea and some stomach cramping. Occasionally there may be chills, low-grade fever, headache, muscle ache and an overall feeling of being tired.
Symptoms are brief, usually lasting 1-2 days. NV or NLV is transmitted through the stool and vomit of those infected. It can be passed through contaminated water or food handled by an infected person. It is also contacted through exposure to any contaminated surface, which is then followed by contact with one’s mouth. Dehydration is the prominent problem with this illness, and the young, elderly or those with weak immune systems are especially prone to illness.
Q. How can I know if a cruise line is responding properly to this problem?
A. Cruise ships docking at U.S. ports are required to report any gastrointestinal illness to the cruise line’s medical staff. They must file a special report if the number of those with gastrointestinal illness reaches 2% of those onboard (passengers and crew). According to the Vessel Sanitation Program (VSP), any ship that carries 13 or more passengers, has a foreign itinerary, and docks at a U.S. port is subject to unannounced inspections twice a year and re-inspections if needed. The ship must meet criteria that have been established by the VSP. For more information on the VSP and specific vessel information visit http://www.cdc.gov/nceh/vsp/default.htm
Q. How I stay healthy while cruising?
A. The biggest prevention of this illness is proper hand washing. Wash your hands after using the restroom and especially before eating. Wash any fruits and vegetables that you purchase before eating them. Though these precautions will not always prevent the illness, it may reduce your chances of becoming infected. If you are infected with the virus, remember to stay hydrated. Drinking plenty of fluids is important. Drink water, juice or oral rehydration fluids. Sports drinks will not replace the vitamins and minerals lost during this illness. Drink small amounts of fluid every half hour.
Debbie Miller is a registered nurse who reports on health issues for Go World Travel. Send ideas and questions on health concerns while traveling to firstname.lastname@example.org.