Ask The Doctor

Fear of Food Poisoning Shouldn’t Deter Cruise

Dear Dr. Garner,

I am a big fan of the column and the “Ask the Doctor” TV show. I hope you are back on the air soon.

My question deals with a 40th wedding anniversary gift my husband gave me – an upcoming trip on the Queen Mary to Europe.

My only concern is that recently I read about a cruise in which over 200 people were sickened by the food. While I am not exactly sure what it means, “projectile vomiting” is not my idea of romance.

Is there a way to prevent getting food poisoning on the cruise?

Worried about Cruise Gone Bad from Coney Island


Dear Worried,

Thank you for your kind words. I am not sure of the return date of the “Ask the Doctor” show. Stay tuned to the NET TV listings in The Tablet.

Before answering your question, I would like to acknowledge Diane Hickey, a Tablet reader and colleague at New York Methodist Hospital.

Congratulations on your 40 years of marriage. The cruise sounds great.

The answer to your question is that the chances of getting food poisoning on a cruise ship can be lessened but not eliminated.

Venues such as a cruise ship, a day care center, nursing home or restaurant can predispose you to increased risk. This is because people are in close quarters, and the bug can spread quickly.

In the past four months, a new stomach virus has been spreading across our country. It is known as a “norovirus,” and it seems to be more powerful than other such viruses. It has the ability to mutate, or to change in such a way that it can avoid the body’s immune system. It can be spread by unsuspecting people who are infected but have not had symptoms yet. Unlike the flu, it affects primarily the stomach, causing nausea, vomiting and diarrhea.

It packs the most harm for the elderly and very young, as these groups are most prone to dehydration, which can occur very quickly.

A prominent feature of the new norovirus is what you correctly described as projectile vomiting. The vomitus can spread 10 feet in the air and land on many different surfaces, such as walls.

It can live on these surfaces for several days, so someone could inadvertently touch the wall and then touch his mouth and develop the disease.

The ways to prevent the disease are as follows:

1. Wash your hands frequently, with soap and water as a first line of defense and alcohol hand sanitizers as a second choice.

2. Make sure all fruit and vegetables are fully washed.

3. Make sure shellfish is washed and cooked properly.

4. Food handlers must be free of disease and wash their hands frequently.

5. The counters must be washed with a solution of bleach and water.

6. Be meticulous when dealing with baby diapers, and make sure you wash your hands thoroughly after changing a baby.

Obviously, on a cruise ship you do not have control of the above, because you are not doing the cooking.

Remember however, that even if you stay home, you could walk into a restaurant and get it, or visit a friend’s house and pick it up.

I think the bottom line is that there is always the risk of the norovirus, but it is important to develop proper hygiene and food safety techniques to lessen your chances of getting it.

The norovirus is the most common form of food poisoning in the U.S. with over 20 million sickened last year and 800 deaths.

It can spread by hand-to-hand contact, through particles that are released into the air during vomiting, sneezing or through food handlers.

Kissing and hand holding can also spread the virus (not an excuse to avoid a little romance on your anniversary). It is very easy to contract the virus, as fewer than 10 viral particles can make you sick.

The answer, I believe, is to go and enjoy your anniversary. There are all kinds of risks in life, but by taking the right precautions, you can have a wonderful cruise. Happy anniversary!

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