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For the weekend: Staying healthy on the high seas

Consumer Reports News: March 19, 2010 06:38 PM

Planning a spring cruise? The news this week that the cruise ship Celebrity Mercury was sent back from its third straight voyage from South Carolina due to an outbreak of gastrointestinal illness may cause some trepidation. But the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates the likelihood that you’ll contract such an illness at less than one percent. Still, given the close quarters of a cruise ship, when an outbreak does occur it can spread fast.

Gastrointestinal illnesses when cruising are usually caused by novoviruses or bacteria in food or water. Many cruise lines go out of their way to prevent the spread of these pathogens. In fact, a colleague who recently took a Caribbean cruise with his family said that his ship’s staff was so aggressive in their distribution of disinfectant wipes that the on-board comedian got some big laughs by making light of the practice. My colleague also thought it was a bit silly at first, but says he quickly felt reassured by the precaution. And it turns out his ship scored a 99 out of 100 from the CDC’s Maritime Illness and Death Reporting System – 86 is satisfactory.

Before booking a cruise, check out the ship on the CDC’s inspection site, but it’s not necessarily predictive. The unfortunate Celebrity Mercury scored a very solid 94, for example. The best way to stay healthy on your voyage is to be careful and practice these preventive measures:
  • Wash hands often with soap and water. And when you can’t wash your hands, use alcohol based hand sanitizer or wipes with at least 60 percent alcohol.
  • Cover your coughs and sneezes.
  • Eat foods that are cooked thoroughly.
  • Report any illnesses to the cruise staff.
  • Avoid contact with sick people.
  • If you feel sick, avoid contact with others.
  • Avoid drinking heavily, and get plenty of sleep.
But be aware, gastrointestinal illness isn’t the only health concern for cruise travelers. Your fellow travelers will come from all over the world, and you may visit several ports, so it’s always flu season on the high seas. And other infectious diseases, such as rubella, chickenpox, and Legionnaires' disease are not uncommon.

Talk to your doctor to make sure you have all the recommended vaccines you and your children need for your itinerary. Proof you have received the yellow fever vaccine may be required to visit certain countries, for example. Make sure you have enough of your regular medications and consider others, such as:
  • Malaria medications if you’re traveling to an endemic region;
  • Antiviral medications if you are at high risk of complications from the flu;
  • Motion sickness medication if your susceptible to seasickness;
  • And antibiotics, should you come down with traveler’s diarrhea.
Finally, prevent mosquito and other bites with an insect repellent that works. Protect yourself from sunburns by covering your skin and using a good sunscreen. And if it’s romance you’re cruising for, don’t forget to practice safe sex.

—Kevin McCarthy, associate editor

For more on staying healthy during travel, see Going Somewhere? 6 Ways to Stay Healthy and Safe.

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