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We have all heard about the norwalk virus and how it likes to take a cruise vacation along with the rest of us. Alarming stories of hundreds of people falling sick on cruise ships have excited the media and panicked the rest of us.

Before we run wild, however, it’s worth noting that the norwalk virus has in fact only infected less than 1% of the total cruise passengers around the world.

But still, even though this puts the situation in better perspective, 1% of all cruise passengers is 1% too much.

Let us take a look at exactly what the virus is and what we can do to prevent it from spreading, reaching us and ruining our trip.

The norwalk virus, also known as Norwalk gastroenteritis virus of humans, is an inflammation of the stomach and intestines which can lead to abdominal pain and/or cramping, nausea, diarrhea and vomiting. Additional symptoms may also include muscle pain, joint stiffness, fever, chills and sweating.

It is sometimes called the "stomach flu," and is often found in communities where large numbers of people collect in smaller than usual spaces, such as schools, hospitals, retirement homes - and yes - cruise ships. in fact, a cruise ship, where passengers and crew mingle in confined quarters, provides the perfect conditions for the spread of a virus.

Even though you have no control over preventing one of your fellow passengers bringing the virus on board, you do have the control to help prevent it reaching you, and it’s rather like trying to prevent yourself falling prey to the latest flu bug.

The key is washing your hands. Frequent washing with warm water and soap helps eliminate the virus should you have come into contact with it. One cruise line captain told us recently that you should sing Happy Birthday to yourself twice while washing your hands. This would ensure that you are doing a thorough job for as much needed time as possible to eliminate the virus. The song may get a bit tired, but it sure helps to keep healthy.

Another precaution is to avoid touching foreign surfaces, like railings and bannisters, elevator buttons and door plates and handles where you know that thousands of hands have been before you.

Be particularly cautious in public washrooms. After using the toilet wash your hands thoroughly and use the paper towels to turn off the taps. Likewise use another paper towel to open the door out of the public washroom. Most cruise ships now provide small waste bins at the door for this specific purpose.

Also, be sure to keep your fingers away from your face. Primary routes of entry for the virus are the mouth, eyes and nose. It sounds obvious and easy to carry out, but you would be surprised how many times your fingers come into contact with all three organs. Unwittingly rubbing your eyes (sometimes a reflex action), tapping your lips with your forefinger while pondering a problem, licking your index finger before turning a page.....

Eating well cooked foods is also recommended, thus avoiding the possibility of the virus being passed by food handlers preparing raw salads, fruits and vegetables. It is also recommended that you avoid shellfish, as this may have been stored in contaminated water, another hiding place for the virus.

If all else fails, and you do fall prey to the norwalk virus, the first and main focus of treatment is to prevent dehydration. Fluids and electrolytes (salts and minerals) lost in diarrhea need to be replaced.

The good news is that most people recover within 2-3 days without serious or long-term health effects.

All Rights Reserved 2008 © Prow's Edge Cruise Magazine - free cruise magazine and resource cruise guide packed with news on cruises, cruising, cruise lines, commentary on the cruise industry by top cruise line executives, recipes and cuisine tips from cruise line chefs, medical tips for cruise passengers, and suggestions on suitable books on cruising and travel.