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Demystifying the myths of Norovirus

Cruise industry executives tell us that they're still shaking their heads over general confusion about the easily communicable virus. Following are the most common myths we've heard one at a time.
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Cruise industry executives tell us that they're still shaking their heads over general confusion about the easily communicable virus. Following are the most common myths we've heard one at a time.

Myth #1: It is not safe to cruise now because of Norovirus.
Reality: The epidemiologists at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say that's absolutely untrue. Says David Forney, chief of the CDC's Vessel Sanitation Program, "it is perfectly safe to go on cruise ships. The standard by which they (cruise lines) are held for sanitation is the highest in the world."

In fact, this might even be an incredibly healthy time to sail, as cruise lines -- and this is not limited to ships where outbreaks have occurred -- are developing proactive procedures to ensure that passengers on voyages, particularly throughout the winter season, don't get sick. How? Royal Caribbean International is very candid about the company's new multi-pronged strategy. This includes sweeping corporate directives (such as the creation of a task force to oversee increased health and sanitation efforts), the implementation of a three-stage illness-prevention program and enhanced passenger communication efforts.

Myth #2: Vessels that experience outbreaks are “sick” ships
Reality: Not at all. In most if not all cases, the ships involved have scored very high on the CDC's notoriously strenuous vessel sanitation inspection. It wasn't the ships that were sick; it was the folks who came onboard and passed the illness around. Norovirus is, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one of the most contagious gastrointestinal illnesses in the world.

Myth #3: Norovirus is a cruise ship phenomenon
Reality: That's simply not true. Norovirus is second to the common cold in reported illnesses, impacting millions of people around the world each year. Norovirus, previously known as Norwalk Virus, was actually named for a land-based outbreak in Norwalk, Ohio, that originally occurred some 30 years ago. It can break out at any time of the year.

Myth #4: There is no way cruise ships can battle the spread of Norovirus
Reality: Again, not true. There are intense -- and even more intense -- cleaning and service protocols that cruise lines follow when the possibility of a spreadable virus onboard exists. These protocols have only become more, not less, sophisticated, as a result of recent outbreaks. All cruise lines are now in a ramped-up cleaning stage. A Princess Cruises spokeswoman says, "Princess staff and crew are trained to be extremely vigilant regarding passenger health, and the line operates a thorough health monitoring system. Employees receive special training and utilize a rigorous sanitary protocol that meets or exceeds CDC requirements."

Another improvement: Medical facilities on many ships are now equipped to test specimen samples onboard -- which means that doctors can get results (and implement necessary measures) much more quickly than in the past.

Fairly new are service-related mandates; many buffet areas are no longer serve-yourself, passengers get a "welcome letter" offering stay-healthy tips about washing hands frequently, and those who do contract the disease are encouraged to stay in their cabin for a day or two so as not to spread Norovirus when it's at its most communicable.

The second, more intense category involves taking the ship out of commission for a massive cleaning. Recent examples include Freedom of the Seas and Carnival Liberty. Back in the fall of 2002, Holland America couldn't break the cycle after four cruises on Amsterdam despite enhanced cleaning; it took the ship out of commission and embarked on an ambitious program. This included sanitizing television remote controls and bibles, disinfecting poker chips and currency, discarding every pillow -- more than 2,500 -- and steam cleaning carpets. The end result? Amsterdam's follow-up cruise was, thankfully, Norovirus-free.

Myth #5: Norovirus is caused by uncooked food.
Reality: That can be a cause, but Norovirus is typically spread through person-to-person contact.