Between two cruise ships arriving in Florida and one in New Orleans, nearly 700 sick passengers were brought to shore over the weekend. Norovirus, which causes vomiting and diarrhea, hit passengers and crew causing hundreds to become ill, many to be quarantined and sailings to be delayed. Its a common ailment, magnified by the closed environment of a cruise ship, but avoidable for the most part with some basic precautions and help is on the way in the form of a new vaccine.
Investigators with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) went on board Ruby Princess and Crown Princess to monitor cleaning procedures said Princess spokesperson Julie Benson. “We’re working in close cooperation with the CDC to identify the cause,” Benson told CNN after 499 cases occurred between the two ships, both based out of Fort Lauderdale.
In New Orleans, WDSU-TV reported Royal Caribbean‘s Voyager of the Seas returned with 200 cases of the flu-like illness.
“At Royal Caribbean International we have high health standards for all our guests and crew,” said Royal Caribbean in a statement. “During the sailing, we conduct enhanced cleaning on-board the ship, to help prevent the spread of the illness. Additionally, when Voyager of the Seas arrived in New Orleans, Louisiana, this past Saturday, February 4, we conducted an extensive and thorough sanitizing on-board the ship and within the cruise terminal, to help prevent any illness from affecting the subsequent sailing.”
The CDC notified officials in Louisiana Friday that a cruise ship might be coming in with a Norovirus outbreak, state epidemiologist Raoult Ratard said Sunday, reported CBS News. Putting the illness into perspective, Ratard said that on any given day about 10,000 people in the New Orleans area are likely to have diarrhea and about 30 percent of them because of the Norovirus.
“In a closed space like a cruise ship, in a nursing home, in a hospital, you want to be extra careful,” Ratard said.
On the horizon, new a new medical breakthrough might have the answer to cruise passenger concerns over Norovirus incidents.
“It is possible to prevent infection and illness with a vaccine for Norovirus,” Dr. Robert Atmar, a professor of medicine and molecular virology at the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston told Medicine Plus. But many questions remain unanswered, he said. For example, “we have to figure out the best way to give it and how long protection lasts.”
Tested on 98 people who received the vaccine or an inactive placebo, all of the participants tested positive for a gene that makes them more susceptible to the Norovirus. But those who received the new vaccine were less likely to develop the illness than their counterparts who received the placebo, the study showed.
Administered as two doses three weeks apart via a nasal spray, there were no safety issues seen in the study and side effects were minimal.
“Further study is needed to answer questions such as who should get the vaccine and how long the protection lasts,” said Dr. Thomas Hooton, a professor of infectious disease at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine noting the Norovirus is “a mess and spreads like wildfire.”
When will this new treatment be available?
No timetable has been set but Atmar suggested the likely initial candidates would be people in nursing homes, health-care workers, the military and segments of the food industry.
How to avoid Norovirus while we wait for the new miracle medicine? Here are some tips to maximize your chances of not getting the Norovirus bug while on your cruise:
- Wash your hands- Like on land, our hands contact all sorts of things and people, many of which may have horrible sicko germs, waiting to attack us. Do you know how to wash your hands? The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the people that police these things, have instructions on how to do it.
- Don’t count on the hand sanitizers– Those hand sanitizer dispensers all over the ship are mostly for show in the grand scheme of things. They help but there is no substitution for a good hand washing.
- Avoid touching things– Hand rails on stairs, elevator buttons, walls are all things that some sick person might have touched before you.
- Don’t pick your nose– I know, gross, but a really good way to get germs on your fingers into your body.
- Avoid closed spaces– Cruise ships themselves provide the closed environment that the Norovirus needs to multiply and thrive. Elevators then, are almost like a closed environment within a closed environment and should be avoided. It won’t kill most people to take the stairs and get some extra exercise either.
Flickr photo by SCA Svenska Cellulosa Aktiebolaget