Taking a cruise? Use these tips to prevent the norovirus

norovirus sickens more than 600 cruise passengers
BAYONNE, NJ - JANUARY 29: The Royal Caribbean cruise ship "Explorer of the Sea" returns to port after over 600 people became violently sick during a cruise on January 29, 2014 in Bayonne, New Jersey. The ship was three days into a 10 day trip when passengers were hit by a stomach bug that spread quickly.
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The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention confirmed Friday that the gastrointestinal illness that sickened more than 600 passengers and crew aboard Royal Caribbean’s Explorer of the Seas this week during a cruise to the Caribbean was caused by the norovirus. Another cruise ship operated by Princess Cruises headed back to its port in Texas two days early on Thursday after it was previously reported that more than 160 passengers and crew became sick with an apparent stomach virus, although the cruise spokespeople insisted the early port was due to a fog advisory.

“It’s the norovirus season,” said Dr. Al DeMaria, an infectious disease specialist at the Massachusetts Department of Public Health. “It’s more a matter of what’s going on in communities where tourists are coming from, and norovirus circulates in this country during the winter months.”

There’s often little travelers can do to keep from getting sick with the “winter vomiting disease”—a nickname for norovirus because that’s the prominant symptom along with diarrhea. “It’s very contagious with a short incubation period,” DeMaria said. But it’s usually short-lived and not serious, with symptoms resolving in an average of two days.

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Precautions travelers can take? Besides avoiding passengers and crew who are sick, washing hands frequently in soap and water can help. Alcohol-based rubs don’t work as well against norovirus as they do against cold and flu viruses, DeMaria said. Realize, too, that any vomit is particularly contagious, so people who clean it up need to wash their hands thoroughly and change their clothes afterwards.

Sticking with hot foods during an outbreak may be better than foods laid out on a buffet, he added, since the virus thrives on cake, breads, and other foods kept at room temperature. Royal Caribbean took the proper precaution in covering its buffets and having waiters with gloves serving food to passengers.

“Cruise companies spend an enormous time to reduce norovirus risk,” DeMaria said. “From everything I”ve heard, everyone who works on these ships is attuned to this.”