Norovirus Goes Airborne: What this Could Mean for Cruise Lines and Passengers

Lipcon, Marguiles, Alsina & Winkleman, P.A

Cruise ship Norovirus outbreaks - LMAW cruise lawyersNorovirus is serious news for the cruise industry. Every year, the virus sickens roughly 20 million people and ruins cruise vacations for countless travelers. The virus is notorious for affecting enclosed populations, which is why it spreads so quickly on cruise ships.

Yet, even with its ability to wreak havoc for cruisers, knowing how the virus is spread can help reduce the risk of infection. Current research contends that  Norovirus is spread by consuming contaminated food and drink or touching infected surfaces, so naturally, you would think you’ll be safe from infection if you avoid contaminated materials. However, the cruise lawyers at our firm have come to learn that this may not be the case anymore. New findings on how the virus spreads may completely change how cruise lines handle outbreaks on board and make it extremely difficult to avoid infection on a ship if an outbreak does occur.

Recently, researchers in Canada have shed new light on the ways Norovirus spreads, suggesting the virus may actually be airborne. Data from the studies revealed that individuals can become infected even when standing several feet away from the infected person. The air surrounding an infected person can become saturated with enough concentration of the virus to make others around them sick.

For cruise lines, this isn’t great news. Traditional sanitation methods may no longer suffice – not that current sanitation methods are top notch – if Norovirus can spread through the air. If the virus can easily go airborne, a much more thorough quarantine protocol may be the only real way to prevent  it can actually be contained when passengers or crew members become sick. Cruise lines may even have to look into spending money on dual ventilation systems so that in the event of an outbreak, those in quarantine will have a separate filtration system and contaminated air will not spread across an entire ship.

Another interesting fact about Norovirus that not many may be aware of is that it’s a lot more than just a stomach bug. While typical Norovirus symptoms include nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea, and dissipate within a few days, the reality is that for some, the virus can prove deadly, especially when victims do not stay hydrated or when victims have compromised immune systems or other health issues.

In a National Geographic article, one CDC scientist called Norovirus the “perfect human pathogen.” Norovirus infiltrates the gut, burrowing into the very DNA of the cells that inhabit the human digestive tract. Within a single day of infection, the virus has effectively infiltrated the gut’s cells, rewired them, and turned the human gut into a Norovirus DNA producing factory—a factory that spews the virus out rather effectively.

The intestinal lining of a person who has been infected is altered by the virus, causing the cells to shed fluids, and the virus as well. In fact, a person who has been infected can shed five billion Noroviruses. Studies into the workings of the virus have also found that in the initial stages of infection, the virus actually slows down a person’s digestive process.

To make matters worse, it only takes 20 Noroviruses to infect a person. When a sick person can shed five billion or virus particles, it becomes clear how effective the virus is in ensuring its continued survival. All of this information is really quite frightening, which is why cruise lines should be working a lot harder to lower the chances of an outbreak by engaging in much stricter sanitation practices.

While researchers continue to study the implications of the virus’s ability to become airborne, anyone considering a cruise vacation should take precautions to reduce their chances of getting sick by washing hands frequently, avoiding cruise line buffets, and staying away from crowded spaces.

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