News broke recently where more than 600 people on a cruise ship fell ill with gastrointestinal symptoms such as vomiting and diarrhea. Unfortunately, the only unusual thing about this is that such a large percentage of the passengers became sick – from 2008 to 2013, there were 83 cruise ships that the CDC reported as having gastrointestinal illness outbreaks. Cruise ships from other countries also reported similar outbreaks.
Going by the symptoms presented, the pathogen in question is most likely to be norovirus (Norwalk virus). This virus is able to spread from person-to-person, and by contact with surfaces contaminated by the virus, such as door handles, elevator buttons, and cutlery. Norovirus spreads even faster in where large groups of people are kept close together in enclosed spaces such as cruise ships and schools. The best way to counteract the spread of norovirus is to sanitize high contact surfaces and minimize item exchange between people as much as possible with chlorine and chlorine-based cleaners; alcohol-based cleaners have less of an effect on noroviruses because they do not have a lipid envelope which could be disrupted by alcohol. People should avoid touching their faces, particularly around the mouth, nose or eyes, and wash their hands prior to eating.
Most sanitizing wipes, unfortunately, are not chlorine-based; nevertheless, they act as a reminder to myself to wash my hands; I also use them to wipe my cutlery and door handles, and throw them away once used. Call me a germaphobe, but I do like to stay healthy as much as I can, and I really don’t fancy spending my days on a cruise ship vomiting or running to the toilet to vacate my bowels every hour.
(Although there were about 20,000 U.S. cruises from 2008 to 2013, not all of the outbreaks occurring may have been reported; only cruises of 3-21 days length, with more than 100 passengers and more than 3% of the passengers ill, coming from an international port to a U.S. port, are required to be reported by the CDC. As the average number of passengers on a cruise ship tends to hover around 100, this means that about half of the 20,000 cruises are not reported upon; if we take into account the other conditions mentioned, it is likely that the number of cruises within the purview of the outbreak updates by the CDC falls even further.)