Viral illness hits cruise ship passengers

Posted: Wednesday, June 05, 2002

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- A viral infection that commonly strikes cruise-ship travelers in Alaska has struck again.

More than 250 cruise-ship, tour-bus and railroad passengers have reported daylong bouts of nausea, vomiting and diarrhea since Memorial Day.

The bug was first reported by vacationers May 25 after they disembarked from the 2,000-passenger Ocean Princess, said Tom Dow, vice president of public affairs for the Seattle-based Princess Cruises and Tours.

Since then, about 270 passengers have reported the symptoms. One of the passengers required hospitalization in Anchorage, although it was unclear whether the virus or some other malady was the cause, Dow said. Most passengers were back on their feet within a day, he said.

Fourteen new cases were reported Monday.

Such viruses are not uncommon on tour ships and buses, where people are crowded together and often unable to keep up their usual standards of personal hygiene, said Dr. Beth Funk, an epidemiologist with the Division of Public Health.

''We have it almost annually, because people are moving around in small groups,'' she said. ''It can spread pretty efficiently among travelers.''

Unlike influenza, the virus is not considered a serious, life-threatening illness, Funk said. People who contract it typically feel sick for one day, but start recovering the next.

It is, however, difficult to track. The virus takes 24 to 48 hours to incubate, and can be food-borne, water-borne or passed from person to person through direct contact. It is one of many diseases passed through the fecal-oral route, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

An outbreak that affected some 200 tour-bus passengers in 1995 was traced to a contaminated water supply at a restaurant in Burwash Landing in British Columbia.

The illness is so common, Funk said, that the Centers for Disease Control require cruise ship companies to report outbreaks only when they reach 3 percent of the passengers and crew on a ship. In the case of the Ocean Princess, the trigger would have been 60 cases. Princess Cruises informed the CDC after about 30 cases were called in, Dow said.

The source of the Ocean Princess outbreak could be difficult to ascertain, Dow said. It might have started with a kitchen employee preparing a salad without first having washed his or her hands after using the bathroom. Just as easily, a passenger could have picked up the bug in Juneau or Skagway and passed it along to the vessel's staff or even a food buffet line.

Princess Cruises stepped up sanitation measures throughout its Alaska operations the day the outbreak was recognized, Dow said. Those include additional sanitizing and disinfection in sick passengers' rooms, tour-bus restrooms and lodge guest rooms.

Passengers also were warned to do their part to reduce the outbreak by washing up thoroughly, Dow said.

According to epidemiologist Funk, ''Hand-washing is the key. In the best situations, such as when you're at home, washing well is a challenge. When you're traveling, it's even more of a challenge.''

While this is the first major outbreak, Funk said she doubts it will be the last.

''The summer is young,'' she said.

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