Norovirus gastroenteritis, a digestive tract virus that can cause vomiting, stomach cramps, fever and diarrhoea, recently struck an Australian ship bound for Singapore, with more than 100 people out of the total 2,000 on board affected.
Princess Cruises liner The Sea Princess, a 15-deck ship that left Fremantle for Singapore on August 18, had already missed several stops due to mechanical problems, but the Norovirus outbreak really made it “the cruise from hell”, according to one passenger.
“I couldn’t believe how strong it was… It hit you before you knew what happened”, said another passenger, real estate agent Jim Edwards, 56. He stated that it was the worst case of gastroenteritis he had ever experienced and that it spread through the ship “like wildfire”.
“I was worried about the older people. It was knocking them down like flies”, Mr Edwards continued and explained that he and the other ill passengers were instructed to stay inside their cabins, while the worst cases were taken to the ship’s hospital.
Edwards was also very surprised that, given the number of sick passengers on board, the ship wasn’t quarantined in Singapore. “They were trying to tell us the number of cases was shrinking, but more people seemed to be going down”, he said, although a Princess Cruises spokesman later stated, “The number of new cases quickly fell, indicating the problem had been contained.”
Confinement is the Key Problem
Norovirus, one of the most common gastroenteritis viruses in Australia, can be “debilitating”, according to Australian Medical Association president Michael Gannon, who also noted, “There’s the potential for very serious outbreaks in confined environments, whether it’s a prison, a boarding school or a cruise ship.” According to research, viruses like Norovirus really thrive in these environments, as a large group of susceptible people are in a confined space for a long period of time.
On a cruise ship there are other factors to consider:
- a lot of socialising and mixing of passengers (the virus can be transferred on contact)
- the use of handrails (it can be transferred by contaminated surfaces)
- and a number of food safety issues, including the frequent serving of buffet-style meals (it can also be transferred by contaminated food or water)
The National Geographic reported on a similar gastroenteritis virus affecting one-fifth of 3,050 passengers on a Caribbean cruise in January and stated that such outbreaks of illness were common on cruise ships and, once it hits, it can be very hard to contain.
The best defence is to frequently wash and sanitise hands, and avoid touching surfaces touched by others, like toilet door handles and handrails. And try to get to the buffet first!