Are Cruise Ships a Health Risk?

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Don't worry playing shuffleboard probably doesn't increase your chances of blowing out a knee. But if you're going on a cruise, make sure you wash your hands: Cruise ships can be a hotbed for viruses.

We're not talking about the piddly viruses that cause the common sniffle. No, the big threat on cruise ships are the noroviruses, a class of bugs that causes nearly 90 percent of all non-bacterial gastroenteritis more commonly known as the stomach flu, the main symptoms of which are intense vomiting and diarrhea outbreaks in the world. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also estimate that noroviruses are responsible for 50 percent of all foodborne outbreaks of gastroenteritis in the U.S.

Noroviruses spread through person-to-person contact and when they're aerosolized by a cough or sneeze. The best way for the virus that spreads in this way to jump from one infected person to a couple thousand is to pack them all in one room and keep them locked up for a week. In other words, put the sick person on a cruise ship. The virus can also spread through food or water contaminated with just a few specks of feces, so even the buffets and waterslides could be hazardous .

An added trouble with noroviruses is that they can linger on surfaces. If an infected person touches, for example, a shuffleboard paddle, and transfers their germs to it, there's a decent chance that you'll catch those germs if you're next in line for the paddle. A ship's crew has limited time to clean in between cruises; not every surface can be bleached. If the ship has a verified virus outbreak, cruise lines may enforce taking extra time to clean the ship and the cruise terminal. Even then, noroviruses are hard to kill most survive a scrubbing with a 10 percent bleach solution.

There have been 12 viral outbreaks on cruise ships so far in 2010, which is about average based on recent history. In 2009, there were 15 outbreaks; in 2008, 14; in 2007, 17; and in 2006, 32.

The best way to keep yourself healthy a cruise is to be vigilant about your hygiene. That means washing your hands with soap and water especially after using the bathroom and using alcohol-based hand sanitizers.

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Bjorn Carey is the science information officer at Stanford University. He has written and edited for various news outlets, including Live Science's Life's Little Mysteries, and Popular Science. When it comes to reporting on and explaining wacky science and weird news, Bjorn is your guy. He currently lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with his beautiful son and wife.