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Outbreaks of illness on cruise ships declining

The number of outbreaks of gastrointestinal illness on cruise ships sailing from U.S. ports is on track to hit a multi-year low this year, continuing a downward trend that began several years ago as the industry increased prevention efforts.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta has recorded just 11 outbreaks of illnesses such as norovirus on ships so far in 2011, down from 14 in 2010, 15 in 2009 and more than 30 as recently as 2006.

The decline comes even as the number of people cruising continues to rise. The Cruise Lines International Association estimates the industry will carry 16 million passengers in 2011, up from 15 million in 2010.

Cruise ships arriving in U.S. ports must report all cases of gastrointestinal illness treated by on-board medical staff to the CDC’s Vessel Sanitation Program division, and a separate notification is required when the number of cases exceeds 2% of passengers and crew. When the number of cases exceeds 3% of passengers and crew the CDC issues a public report.

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An analysis of the public reports for 2011 by USA TODAY’s Cruise Log shows that, as in past years, the majority of the outbreaks — 6 out of 11 — were due to norovirus, a common stomach bug. Two of the outbreaks were caused by enterotoxigenic E. coli bacteria. The causes of three other outbreaks remain unknown (click HERE for ship-by-ship details on all 11 outbreaks).

Of the 11 outbreaks, four have been on ships operated by Princess Cruises, which struggled earlier this year with a string of norovirus outbreaks on the 2,000-passenger Sea Princess.

Only one other line has had more than one outbreak: Celebrity Cruises. Four other lines — Oceania Cruises, Royal Caribbean, Holland America and Lindblad Expeditions — each reported a single outbreak.

Notably, there have been several major lines in 2011 that have not reported a single outbreak to the CDC, including Norwegian Cruise Line and industry giant Carnival — the world’s largest line with 23 ships.

The number of outbreaks recorded by the CDC in 2011 is lower than in any year since 2001, when there were just four outbreaks recorded.

Sometimes called the “24-hour flu” even though it is unrelated to influenza, norovirus is the most common cause of gastrointestinal illness in the United States, accounting for around half of all cases, according to the CDC. It breaks out regularly in schools, nursing homes, hospitals, offices and other places people congregate.

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