This cruise ship had to turn around after 500 people got sick — why does this keep happening?

Korin Miller
·Writer
A Royal Caribbean cruise ship is setting sail again after hundreds became sick onboard. (Photo: Getty Images/Michael H.)
A Royal Caribbean cruise ship is setting sail again after hundreds became sick onboard. (Photo: Getty Images/Michael H.)

Royal Caribbean’s Oasis of the Seas cruise is planning to set sail again, days after returning to port early after nearly 500 passengers on board became sick.

A hundred people were confined to their rooms as a norovirus spread throughout the ship, according to Fox 35. “To be honest, for the last four days, we’ve kind of felt like caged dogs,” said one passenger, William Gleed, adding that passengers were “not allowed off the ship” and that they were given “little information.” Once the ship docked and people disembarked, cleaning crews in hazmat suits were seen spraying railings and furniture, per ClickOrlando.com.

The ship changed course from its Western Caribbean itinerary on Thursday, after 277 people contracted norovirus, a highly contagious gastrointestinal illness that causes vomiting and diarrhea, according to the Orlando Sentinel. Royal Caribbean gave all passengers a full refund, the paper says.

This is hardly the first time a cruise ship has struggled with a norovirus outbreak. In 2017, more than 300 people came down with norovirus on the Royal Caribbean ship Independence of the Seas. More than 100 people developed norovirus on a Disney cruise in 2016, and on the cruise ship Celebrity Infinity, more than 100 passengers were affected the condition in 2015.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), norovirus is extremely contagious. It is contracted through direct contact with someone who is infected, by touching surfaces or objects that have been infected with the illness, or by consuming food or beverages that are contaminated with it. Despite this, the CDC says norovirus outbreaks are “relatively infrequent” on cruise ships.

From 2008 to 2014, 74 million passengers sailed on cruise ships in the Vessel Sanitation Program’s jurisdiction and, of those, 129,678 passengers met the program’s definition for acute gastrointestinal illness, per CDC data. Only a small proportion of those cases (one in 10) were part of a norovirus outbreak.

Still, norovirus can and does come up on cruise ships more often than people would like. “Cruise ships have an enclosed population where people are all housed together,” infectious disease expert Amesh A. Adalja, MD, senior scholar at the John’s Hopkins Center for Health Security, tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “They’re living on top of each other and interacting — and that can allow norovirus to spread quickly.”

“Some people can also board the ship and be minimally ill and not want to miss vacation or be ill the next day and bring norovirus with them,” William Schaffner, MD, an infectious disease specialist and professor at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine, tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “Then, boom — it spreads rapidly.”

If you’re planning to take a cruise, Schaffner recommends paying extra attention to your personal hygiene. “If you see someone who is vomiting, run away and report it to cruise personnel,” Adalja says. “People don’t necessarily want to say they’re sick and try to hide it.” If you want to be extra cautious, you can pack a surgical mask to wear in case an outbreak hits, he adds.

If you are unlucky enough to get caught in the middle of a cruise ship norovirus outbreak, it’s important to isolate yourself from other passengers, Schaffner says. “Stay away from people who are sick, so you don’t become one of them,” he adds.

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