Norovirus needs a new nickname

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Actress Charlize Theron didn’t get sick, but about 250 other people at the Academy Awards dinner she emceed in 2002 – the side-ceremony for winners of technical Oscars that never get much attention – spent some rough hours in the bathroom after they got home.

So why isn’t the diarrheal illness caused by norovirus, the notorious bug that got them all, called the Oscars Disease?

The same question could be asked of hospitals or junior high schools, caterers or fast food restaurants, assisted living centers or college dorms, airplanes or day care centers.

But television news footage of interviews with cruise ship passengers who were aboard during an outbreak pushes the fear button in viewers, plays up the “trapped” nature of those aboard a ship at sea and – in the perverse calculus of broadcast news – makes “great TV.”

So norovirus is best known as the Cruise Ship Disease, even though scientific measurements thoroughly debunk that characterization. As a recent issue of JAMA, the Journal of the American Medical Association, put it: “Perceptions that cruise ships can be luxury breeding grounds for acute gastroenteritis outbreaks don’t hold water.”

The venerable medical journal cited the latest report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) that found during a seven-year study period from 2008 to 2014 only 0.18 percent of more than 73 million cruise passengers reported norovirus symptoms. Of 28 million crew members who sailed during that period, only 0.15 percent of them reported symptoms.

In an earlier study, the CDC determined that 70 percent of norovirus cases in the U.S. can be traced to the restaurant industry, compared to 1 percent on cruise ships.

Americans have a 1-in-15 chance of getting sick from norovirus on land, but only a 1-in-12,000 chance on a cruise ship — the same odds of finding a pearl in a oyster at a raw bar.

Still, it’s called the Cruise Ship Disease.

It may be the cruise industry’s own efforts to combat norovirus that make it stand out among other, much more likely venues, says Dr. Ben Shore, RCL chief medical consultant.

“We subsidize a program in cooperation with the CDC called the Vessel Sanitation Program,” Shore explains. “And the industry does this in order to self-inspect and to bring us to remarkable standards of safety and cleanliness and sanitization.

“It’s unique. I don’t know of any other organization – be it taxis, hotels, convention centers, airlines – that subject themselves to a self-funded inspection program for sanitation. None of them have as strict a program or participate in a program of this kind.”

On top of daily cleansing of its ships, RCL kicks into hyper drive with any outbreak, isolating those who report symptoms while sanitizing every conceivable transmission surface, from railings right down to individual poker chips in casinos.

And there’s no letting up, Shore says.

“Norovirus is exactly like the flu,” he explains. “Here we have a viral illness, it’s seasonal and it mutates.

“So we have to forever maintain vigilance.”

In other words, cruise lines always have to be on the lookout for the Restaurant Disease.