Cruise ship illness falls precipitously

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The number of ill passengers on cruise ships fell to its lowest level in at least 16 years in 2018, as improved sanitation and better practices kept outbreaks from mushrooming.

Just 547 passengers were sick with gastrointestinal illness in outbreaks reported to the U.S. government's Centers for Disease Control, less than half of the 1,214 reported last year.

Only one of the 10 cruise ships reporting outbreaks had more than 100 passengers ill. By contrast, 2017 saw five ships with more than 100 cases of gastrointestinal illness, including one that reported 310 sick passengers.

Most episodes of gastrointestinal illness on ships are caused by noroviruses, communicable but non-fatal bugs that are typically brought aboard by passengers at embarkation.

A sharp upswing in norovirus outbreaks on ships began in 2002, linked to a new strain of the virus. At its peak in 2006, outbreaks were reported on 34 voyages affecting thousands of passengers.

An outbreak must be reported to the CDC when gastrointestinal illness hits 3% or more of the ship's passengers.

In recent years, cruise lines have made a concerted effort to inform passengers about frequently washing their hands and using the sanitizing gel dispensers located throughout the ship. New ships have multiple sinks for hand washing built at the entrance to the buffet restaurants. Lines have adopted extensive cleaning regimens when signs of illness crop up during a cruise.

On only one ship last year, Cunard Line's Queen Victoria, was an outbreak of gastrointestinal illness traced to e-coli bacteria rather than norovirus or unknown causes, CDC records show.

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