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Sail on, but wash your hands

By Eleni Berger
CNN

Carnival Cruise Lines employees disinfected the Fascination before it set sail again this week.
Carnival Cruise Lines employees disinfected the Fascination before it set sail again this week.

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Investigators are looking into outbreaks of gastrointestinal illnesses aboard U.S. ships such as Carnival Cruise Lines' Fascination. CNN's Susan Candiotti reports. (December 3)
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ATLANTA, Georgia (CNN) -- Recent reports of gastrointestinal illness aboard cruise ships may have some travelers thinking twice about setting sail, but cruise industry officials said there is little cause for worry.

"What we're stressing to passengers is No. 1, don't cancel your cruise, and if you're thinking about taking a cruise, go ahead," said Molly McPherson, communications director for the International Council of Cruise Lines, an industry organization. "Simple hygiene will stop this virus."

Hundreds of passengers aboard several recent cruises have been affected by a Norwalk-like virus, which causes diarrhea and vomiting for two to three days.

The number of people affected in the outbreaks is a bit higher than what is normally seen on cruise ships, McPherson said, but noted that other parts of the country, including Salt Lake City, Utah, and parts of Florida, also have reported outbreaks. An increased incidence at sea is not uncommon when land infections also are ongoing, she said.

Norwalk-like viruses are common -- almost as prevalent as the common cold, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention -- and can cause infections anywhere people are in a confined space.

The virus can be transmitted from person to person, the method of transmission suspected in the recent outbreaks, or through contaminated food and water. Hand washing and limiting hand-to-mouth contact are the best ways to prevent it, health officials said.

Outbreaks on cruise ships occur several times a year, said David Forney, chief of the CDC's Vessel Sanitation Program, which monitors health and sanitary conditions on cruise liners.

But outbreaks also occur on land, and the CDC estimates that 10 percent to 15 percent of all travelers catch a Norwalk-like virus.

Even casino chips are disinfected after an outbreak of gastrointestinal illness such as the one that struck the Fascination and two other ships.
Even casino chips are disinfected after an outbreak of gastrointestinal illness such as the one that struck the Fascination and two other ships.

"The reality is that these cases are happening all the time," said Steve Williams, medical director for Carnival Cruise Lines, which had a suspected outbreak on the ship Fascination. "Probably one of the reasons we know about [the cruise ship cases] is that we monitor it so closely."

In fact, the Vessel Sanitation Program requires cruise ships to keep detailed daily records of all passengers and crew who report symptoms of gastrointestinal illness or ask for antidiarrheal medication, and then report these cases to the CDC.

If 2 percent of people aboard any vessel have a gastrointestinal illness, the ship must institute special cleaning procedures to disinfect common areas.

Those procedures, McPherson said, include using special disinfectants; thorough cleaning of "high-touch areas" such as doorknobs, elevator buttons and exercise equipment; and explaining to guests how the cruise line is dealing with the outbreak and what medical experts recommend for handling the situation.

The industry, McPherson said, has an abundance of caution when it comes to illness on board. "Anybody that's sick on a cruise ship is a big deal to the industry -- we're concerned about the health and safety of all our passengers."

However, she said the cruise companies can only do so much to keep travelers from getting ill. "If someone walks on a ship with it, there's very little the cruise line can do to prevent that," she said.



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