Norovirus: Sanitisers not as good as soap and water

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Some people refuse to go cruising for various reasons but the one fear that seems responsible for the reluctance of many is that of becoming ill in an on-board epidemic of one type or another.

And, without a doubt, the most well-known bug that dominates their thinking is the Norovirus – and that is emphasised every time a cruise ship reports an outbreak.

Of course, when you think of the number of cruises are completed by all the ships of all the cruise lines – the proportion of those that report an outbreak of illnesses is absolutely tiny.

Nevertheless, Norovirus is the cause of real trepidation, so let me explain exactly what it is.

Norovirus, sometimes known as winter vomiting bug, is the most common cause of viral gastroenteritis in humans everywhere – not just on ships – and affects people of all ages. The virus is transmitted by fecally-contaminated food or water, by person-to-person contact and via aerial transmission of vomited virus and subsequent contamination of surfaces.

Much of the contamination can be avoided by good hygiene procedures so that the virus is not transmitted by person-to-person or person-to-foods. Many norovirus outbreaks have been traced to food that was handled by one infected person.

While having Norovirus is unpleasant, it is not usually dangerous and most of its victims make a full recovery within two to three days.

The genus name Norovirus is derived from Norwalk virus, the only species of the genus. The species causes approximately 90% of epidemic non-bacterial outbreaks of gastroenteritis around the world and may be responsible for 50% of all foodborne outbreaks of gastroenteritis in the United States,

On cruise ships and in hospitals, you will often find hand sanitisers placed at strategic points in an attempt to reduce, or even eliminate, infections. However, it seems they are not as good as washing hands.

Indeed. the UK’s Health Protection Agency claims that sanitising gels may be of benefit when used after a hand wash but adds they should not be regarded as a substitute for soap and water. Sanitisers may fail to remove all contamination from the hands, the agency warns.

The Center for Disease Control in the US also claims clean, running water plus soap should be used where available but that a hand sanitiser, containing an alcohol content of at least 60%, may be used instead where there is no convenient water supply.

However, one study in the US indicated that alcohol-based hand sanitisers may actually increase the risk of Norovirus in healthcare settings. Staff in long-term care facilities where Norovirus has been reported were found to be six times more likely to use hand sanitisers either to the same degree or more frequently than they would use soap and water.

So, wherever you are, keep your hands clean and make sure you wash them thoroughly.

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