By NELS SEIFERT, Associate Editor and Featured Columnist
The soft Caribbean breeze gently brushing your hair back as your eyes fixate on the beautiful turquoise waters you have been dreaming of every night since booking your cruise is an amazing feeling and memory. Sounds inviting.
But in recent news, there have been three serious illness outbreaks on a few cruise liners that have led to a reported 152 passengers and crew ill. Cruise liners have taken measures to prevent illnesses aboard there vessels, but more times than not, the preventive measures and proper sanitation practices are not adhered to by crew members at sea and port.
The main culprit in the string of illnesses aboard the ships is the "norovirus", an extremely infectious virus that lurks in contaminated food, water, and unsanitary areas and surfaces.
The norovirus can induce flu like symptoms as well as more serious medical issues. Each year, the virus is responsible for approximately 60,000 hospitalizations in the United States. Some of these hospitalizations result in deaths. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that the norovirus causes 800 deaths annually.
The story is much the same worldwide. A study by Dr. Brian Rha and colleagues at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in 2013 found that "Noroviruses are the most common cause of epidemic and sporadic gastroenteritis worldwide. In the United States, norovirus gastroenteritis causes an estimated 21 million cases of illness and [approximately] 800 deaths annually."
Most cruises are all-inclusive affairs with temptations lurking around every corner. There are long buffet tables and cheap local, alcoholic beverages with pretty miniature umbrellas and fresh fruit to keep you relaxed and comfortable. However, it's important to take caution when you are cruising, and to understand the hazards and possible health risks that await you when you climb aboard, and throwing caution to the wind. Being prepared and having an idea of how to prevent illness and fatigue when sailing the open seas is just as important as not forgetting your passport. How can you protect yourself and your family against norovirus? What are the best ways to stay healthy on a cruise?
Protect Yourself from the Cruise Ship Stomach Bug
There have been so many reports over the years of cruise ship norovirus outbreaks and people getting ill due to poor hygiene and sanitation standards aboard cruise ships. In some ways, a cruise ship is a melting pot of bacteria which, if not controlled, can infect hundreds of people forced to live shoulder-to-shoulder for days, eating, drinking, talking and dancing together.
The norovirus will flatten you. It will leave you with flu like symptoms, gastroenteritis, inducing vomiting, diarrhea, and overall nausea with a touch of aches and pains. Not fun.
In 2006, doctors from the National Center for Environmental Health, CDC, Atlanta, Georgia, completed a study outlining the health risks of cruising. They noted that more and more people are getting sick on cruises.
The study concluded, "This increase, likely attributable to noroviruses, highlights the inability of environmental programs to fully predict and prevent risk factors" which allow disease to spread from person-to-person.
This suggests that programs may be ineffective so it's up to you to prevent you and your family from getting sick.
Here are 8 great tips for staying healthy on your next cruise:
1. An Ounce of Prevention --See Your Doctor before International Travel
Chances are, if you are going on a cruise, than you will be leaving your home country and embarking on an adventure to places with lesser medical care and practices.
It's extremely important to understand what you will be at risk of contracting in the specific countries you will be visiting, as well as making sure you are 100% fit for travel.
The last thing you want is to be stuck in a hotel, paralyzed by illness, and western emergency medicine 1000 km away. Epidemiology of Travel (1993), a study by Dr. Reid and Dr. Cossar from the Communicable Diseases Unit in Scotland warns, "The unprecedented scale and speed of contemporary international travel means that ever increasing numbers of travelers are exposed to unfamiliar infections and other hazards."
When you travel, your immune system may weaken just enough to catch something and you don't want to waste those vacation days you have desperately awaited all year to take. It's always a good idea to see your doctor before leaving your country and traveling internationally, consider it your yearly physical.
2. Vaccines Anyone?
If you are like me, I have a sheet and a little yellow book somewhere hidden in my travel pack, collecting dust and the dates in ink are fading away.
While you are at the doctors, why not ask him about the possible vaccines you may need in order to protect yourself while hopping from port town to port town, trekking through yellow fever jungles in Brazil, or malaria carrying mosquitos in Asia. Research in 1993, again by Dr. D. Reid of Ruchill Hospital in Glasgow, Scotland and others concluded that, "the greater the climatic and cultural contrast between the traveler's country of origin and the destination country, the higher the risk."
It's also crucial to educate yourself on the countries you will be visiting, checking their national websites for immunization requirements and other pertinent details that may serve to protect you when on your vacation.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also recommend, "Regardless of your itinerary, you should be up-to-date on routine vaccines, such as measles/mumps/rubella, varicella, and seasonal flu."
There is no specific treatment or vaccine for norovirus, but you are more susceptible to contracting the virus if you are weakened by another minor illness.
Think outside the box, because most crew members aboard your cruise liner are from different countries than your own and may have not been vaccinated properly.
It's also an excellent idea to get digital and scan your shot records and medical paperwork, putting the files on a pen drive and having copies on hand as well.
3. Wash Your Hands
You might be thinking right now, why on Earth would I want to take a cruise when there are so many risks? True, but the risks of getting ill are everywhere, the subway, bus, office, and the little viruses your kids might bring home from school. On cruise ships, with a lowered immune system from a lack of exercise, poor diet, and poor sanitation standards, you may be at a higher risk.
A study by Dr. Carling and colleagues from Carney Hospital, Boston (2009), concluded, "An objective evaluation of public restroom environmental hygiene on 56 cruise ships found that only 37% of selected toilet area objects were cleaned on a daily basis." Scary number that's worth remembering --- 37%.