Feb. 23, 2010 -- It's a traveler's worst nightmare: you escape on a Caribbean cruise and suddenly everybody around you starts throwing up and has a bad case of diarrhea. For more than 400 people on a Celebrity Cruise out of South Carolina, this week that nightmare is a reality.
Nearly one out of every four passengers aboard the Celebrity Mercury has been struck with a "gastrointestinal illness," according to Cynthia Martinez, a spokeswoman for Celebrity and its parent company Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd.
Over the course of the sailing, so far 419 of the ship's 1,838 guests and 27 of the 849 crew members experienced the illness, Martinez said.
The ship's crew is "conducting some enhanced cleaning" and giving passengers anti-nausea and diarrhea medication such as Pepto-Bismol and Imodium, depending on symptoms, Martinez added.
Passengers were instructed to stay in their cabins until the virus passes.
The 12-day Caribbeancruise left Charleston, S.C., on Feb. 15 and is expected to return Friday after stopping at various islands in the Caribbean including Puerto Rico, St. Thomas, St. Maarten, St. Kitts and the British Virgin Islands.
Celebrity brought on an additional doctor and two nurses Monday to assist the ship's existing medical team. Martinez said the cruise line has sent some samples to a lab to determine exactly what is causing the illness.
Sick passengers will be given a certificate to be used toward a future cruise," Martinez said. The value of the voucher will be "based on the number of days a guest is isolated divided by the total of cruise fare paid."
Cruise Passengers Hit With Virus
Cruise ships can often be hit with the Norovirus, a group of viruses that cause stomach problems. Symptoms often include nausea, vomiting, diarrhea and abdominal cramps.
The virus is spread usually through contaminated food and water or through contact with sick people or even the surfaces they have touched. Most outbreaks occur in a confined space such as a theater, large banquet hall, school, college dorm and of course cruise ships. Outbreaks aboard ships tend to make headlines because the cruise industry is required by law to report any large illness.
"Outbreaks of illness are the exception, not the norm," said Carrie Finley-Bajak, president of Cruise Buzz from the travel agency Cruise Holidays of Mission Viejo, Calif. "Cruise lines have vigorous cleaning regimes. When an outbreak occurs, it is taken seriously."
Finley-Bajak suggests bringing some disposable disinfecting wipes and wiping down doorknobs, phone and other surfaces in the cruise cabin. When offered hand sanitizer, use it, and bring your own to use after touching handrails or slot machines.
She also said to avoid the buffet line and instead eat in the dining room.
Cruise Critic, a Web site that reviews various cruise lines, said that ship outbreaks typically have nothing to do with the initial cleanliness of a ship but rather with a sick passenger having contact with simple things on a ship like handrails or even shaking hands with new friends.
"For the most part, Norovirus outbreaks are the results of guests setting sail sick … and passing it around," the reviewers said.
So how can you stay healthy on a cruise?
First and foremost, Cruise Critic recommends washing your hands often with hot water and soap. Wash up every time you eat, smoke, touch your face, use the bathroom or just have dirty hands.
Avoid uncooked food as much as possible, stick to bottled water and don't share drinking glasses and eating utensils. And limit your physical contact with other passengers.
"We're not saying you absolutely must refuse the captain a handshake at his cocktail party … just use your judgment throughout the cruise," the Cruise Critic Web site states.
Pack Extra Soap, Sanitizer
If you do get sick on the cruise, visit the ship's doctor and drink plenty of water as dehydration is a common side-effect. Passengers are typically quarantined to their cabins to prevent spreading the illness to others. It's not ideal to spend your tropical vacation inside, but it does stop the spread of the virus.
It can take one to three days for the symptoms to appear and then another 24 to 48 hours to recover.
Cruise Critic advises packing extra soap, a supply of Lysol, alcohol-based sanitizers like Purell and a bottle of Pepto-Bismol, just in case.
Stewart Chiron, president of CruiseGuy.com, a travel marketing group specializing in the cruise industry, echoed the other cruise experts saying that the virus is typically spread by previously sick passengers bringing the virus onboard and not following best hygiene practices.
His tip: "Use hand-sanitizers located throughout the ship. They're not part of the décor nor sculptures."