Norovirus Breaks Stereotype as Hospitalizations Soar Beyond Cruise Ships

A man is sitting on a beach with a cruise ship in the background, oblivious to the recent spike in norovirus cases and hospitalizations that have been linked to cruises.

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It’s easy to mistake norovirus as a “cruise ship virus.” After all, we saw more norovirus outbreaks onboard cruise vessels in 2023 than the previous 11 years.

sea day cruise ship

Out of 14 outbreaks inside US cruise ships last year, 13 were due to gastrointestinal illness. But if we were to look beyond the cruising industry, we’d realize that cruise ship norovirus cases are a speck compared to its prevalence on land.

In the United States alone, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) estimates that 19 million to 21 million individuals catch it yearly, with only 1% of these cases occurring in cruise ships. 91% of the time, they spread in schools, hospitals, restaurants, and nursing homes. 

It’s also important to note that the US isn’t the only country experiencing a surge of norovirus symptoms.

Last week, England’s National Health Service (NHS) registered a daily average of 452 patients who were experiencing diarrhea and vomiting, 2 of the most common signs of infection. As early as November 2023, local hospitals were already experiencing 179% more cases than the average from previous years.

Why Are Norovirus Cases Surging?

A stethoscope and surgical mask on a table.

Because it spreads so quickly and easily, it is difficult to trace the cause of the virus. However, experts suggest that the recent rise in cases could be due to the rise in post-pandemic activities. 

  • Schoolchildren confined at home during the lockdowns are now going to school where they’re exposed to different pathogens. 
  • Most of us have stopped practicing preventive measures like social distancing and wearing masks, giving the virus more opportunities to spread.
  • The resurgence of tourism is another factor. When more people travel, travel-related illnesses become more common.

Infectious disease specialist Dr. Luis Ostrosky, shared, “I think our travel frenzy after COVID is partially fueling this continued spread [of norovirus].” 

While norovirus is more than just a “cruise ship virus,” the CDC admits that it can “be especially challenging to control on cruise ships because of the close living quarters, shared dining areas, and rapid turnover of passengers.” 

It can also be transferred onboard through contaminated food, water, and infected passengers. The fact that the virus can survive on surfaces for weeks and is resistant to several disinfectants makes containing it even trickier.

Knowing how to practice proper hygiene is thus crucial for passengers to protect themselves and prevent further infection.

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