Norovirus outbreak sickens hundreds of cruise ship passengers, crew members

/ CBS/AP

Miami — One of the world's biggest cruise ships, Royal Caribbean's Oasis of the Seas, is returning to a Florida port a day early and giving passengers full refunds of their fare after 277 guests and crew members were hit with an outbreak of norovirus as it sailed to Jamaica.

Cruise line spokesman Owen Torres told The Associated Press, "We think the right thing to do is get everyone home early rather than have guests worry about their health."

He says the ship will return to Port Canaveral on Saturday. It sailed from there Sunday on a seven-day Caribbean cruise.

Passengers took to social media on Wednesday, tweeting they were forced to stay onboard after docking in Falmouth, Jamaica, for what was supposed to be a day of excursions.

Torres said returning a day early gives the cruise line "more time to completely clean and sanitize the ship" before it sails again.

What is norovirus?

Norovirus, sometimes called the stomach flu (though it is not related to the flu virus), is a very contagious virus that causes vomiting and diarrhea. Other symptoms can include nausea, stomach pain, fever, headache, and body aches.

A person usually develops symptoms 12 to 48 hours after being exposed to the virus. People of all ages can be affected by norovirus.

How is norovirus spread?

"When you are sick with norovirus, you can shed billions of virus particles in your vomit and poop. It only takes a few of these particles to make someone sick," the CDC explains.

The illness spreads rapidly if you eat food or drink liquids that are contaminated with the virus, touch contaminated surfaces or objects and then touch your mouth, or have direct contact with an infected person, such as by caring for them or sharing food or utensils with them.

The CDC notes that while people often associate cruise ships with norovirus, acute gastrointestinal illness is relatively infrequent on cruise ships. However, the close living quarters on the ship increases the risk of transmission.

How is norovirus treated?

Most people will recover from norovirus in a couple of days. Since norovirus is a virus and not bacteria, antibiotics will not treat the infection.

If you are sick from norovirus, drink plenty of liquids to replace fluid lost from vomiting and diarrhea. This will help prevent dehydration.

How can you prevent infection?

There is currently no vaccine against norovirus but there are steps you can take to prevent infection. Always make sure to wash your hands thoroughly, especially after using the bathroom or changing diapers; when eating, preparing, or handling food; and before giving yourself or someone else medicine.

Safe food prep is also important. Be sure to carefully wash fruits and vegetables before preparing and eating them. Oysters and shellfish need to be thoroughly cooked before they are ready for consumption. Noroviruses are relatively resistant to heat and can survive temperatures as high as 145 degrees Fahrenheit.

Food that may be contaminated with norovirus should be discarded immediately. Kitchen utensils, counters, and surfaces should be routinely cleaned and sanitized before preparing food to avoid foodborne illnesses.

First published on January 10, 2019

© 2019 CBS Interactive Inc. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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