Highly Contagious Stomach Bug Sickens More Than 600 Cruise Ship Passengers

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Last year, CNN’s constant coverage of the “poop ship” — a disabled cruise ship that was unable to process sewage — was widely mocked. But problems on cruises often do capture headlines, and this week, another ship is in the news specifically because of its sanitary conditions. More than 600 passengers and crew members have fallen ill aboard a Royal Caribbean ship, causing the cruiser to cut short its 10-day trip and head for land.

Royal Caribbean employees have been working closely with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to identify the source of the outbreak. An environmental safety officer and an epidemiologist both boarded the ship on Sunday. Health officials have not yet officially determined the illness’s source, but the ship’s doctors think it’s probably norovirus.

Norovirus is an extremely contagious stomach bug that causes cramping, nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea. With up to 21 million annual cases, it’s one of the leading causes of illness in the United States. The CDC estimates that it causes 56,000 to 71,000 hospitalizations each year, and up to 800 deaths.

Since the norovirus spreads so rapidly, it’s actually a fairly common outbreak among cruise ship passengers. Just last week, there were 66 confirmed cases of norovirus among passengers on a different cruise operated by Royal Caribbean. Since cruise ships are required to report every incidence of gastrointestinal illness to the CDC, their norovirus outbreaks get more attention than the thousands of other cases that occur on land. But outbreaks are also common in other crowded places like day cares, nursing homes, and schools. And norovirus is one of the leading causes of foodborne illness in the U.S.

Just this week, norovirus has made news for sickening 30 to 40 hospital workers in Virginia and spreading among several nursing homes in Florida.

The CDC offers a few simple tactics for preventing the spread of norovirus, like properly cooking seafood, disinfecting areas where infected people have thrown up, washing hands regularly, and preventing workers from handling food if they’ve come down with the virus.

There’s also an important policy solution to the issue: paid sick days. The U.S. still doesn’t mandate paid sick leave, a policy failure that disproportionately impacts low-wage workers in the service sector. Sixty percent of food service workers say they’ve come to work while sick — and 20 percent of them say they’ve even worked while experiencing symptoms like vomiting and diarrhea, which could signal the norovirus.