Virus and Volcano
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Virus and Volcano



Pre-Trip Information


Story written by Rick Archer

In early May 2010, SSQQ Travel completed its seventeenth cruise trip. This particular adventure took Marla, Rick, and 34 other SSQQ passengers to Norway, France, Ireland, and Scotland.

Thanks to Marla's Travel Magic, I had the privilege to see four completely new countries in one trip. What an exquisite pleasure!
As wonderful as it was to explore these new and exciting areas of the world, our trip was not without its share of problems. Just when you think you have "seen it all", our group ran across two totally new headaches - Volcanoes and Virus.


Two weeks before our May 5th departure date, Marla poked her nose into my office to tell me some volcano in Iceland might present a real problem for us. I immediately dismissed her fears as complete nonsense. "Don't be ridiculous, Marla. How silly. Some stupid volcano in Iceland is not a problem. The airplane or the cruise ship will just take a different route. Don't give it a second thought."

I would soon come to regret my words.

That 'stupid volcano in Iceland', Eyjafjallajokull, the one that no one can pronounce, turned out to be a major threat to our plane trips. For the next two weeks, Marla and I were on pins and needles with worry over whether our travel plans would be disrupted.... or possibly even ruined.

While the Tale of the Volcanic Ash Cloud unfolded, I could not help but recall "Rita Rhapsody", the name we gave to the fits caused by Hurricane Rita back in 2005. Five years ago, Marla and I shared the bitter experience with this dangerous hurricane that ended up completely disrupting our travel plans.

Now as we studied the problems caused by the ash clouds, both of us were reminded of that nauseous "Rita Nightmare" feeling again. Veteran Houstonians will remember watching the dangerous Hurricane Rita back in 2005 slowly approach our shores with Houston directly in its bulls-eye.

As a jog to everyone's memory, earlier that same summer the killer storm Hurricane Katrina had absolutely flattened New Orleans and Mississippi with its powerful winds and flood waters. And now a second hurricane - Rita - was not only MORE POWERFUL than Katrina, but it seemed hell bent on striking Houston smack dab on the nose.

Although Hurricane Rita did make a miraculous last second veer to the right, it did considerable psychological damage to Houston. Rita basically scared everyone out of their wits. With the images of what had happened to our neighbors in New Orleans just one month earlier fresh in our minds, the entire city went into a deep panic. Everyone decided at the same moment to flee while they still could. Who can forget that Rita's threat caused the biggest traffic jam in world history?

Once we saw the TV images of all those poor people stuck in traffic, Marla and I chose to stick around and ride it out. Both of us felt like we were taking an enormous risk. I can personally vouch for all the nausea I felt as this scary Hurricane approached. I have never before been so scared of a Hurricane!

By coincidence, Marla had a cruise scheduled to go out the same day that Rita hit. Although the Hurricane spared Galveston, it didn't do us much good. Galveston was a ghost town. There was no one left in the city to service the Rhapsody Cruise Ship. It took three more days before the city began to function again. Consequently our trip was cut in half, a major disappointment to everyone... and a massive headache for Marla.

Known as "The Rita Rhapsody" trip, our seven day cruise became a four day cruise. Marla nearly had a nervous breakdown trying to deal with all the problems caused to her cruise trip.... Many fears, many cancellations, total indecision, and much complaining. What a mess.

Marla said she NEVER wanted to go through that again. So as the E-15 Volcano spewed its ash cloud across Europe and grounded planes in the process, Marla was seriously worried that Mother Nature had stepped in once again to ruin our trip. Marla was born to worry. Rita Rhapsody taught her that yes, things CAN GO WRONG on her carefully planned trips. This ash cloud seemed just as ominous to Marla as the hurricane storm clouds had been five years earlier.

After the volcano began spewing significant amounts of ash on April 14, air regulators throughout Europe reacted to this unusual threat by closing 80% of their airspace.

Marla and I were in a fix. Ironically, the same woman who advises everyone to buy Travel Insurance for their cruises had forgotten to buy Travel Insurance for our own very expensive cruise. If we couldn't make it to the ship, tough luck. There wasn't much sympathy on the cruise line's part - "that's why we advise buying Travel Insurance". Use it or lose it.

If we couldn't get to Oslo on time, our entire trip was down the drain. The irony was not lost on us. Considering I had just retired from the dance studio, this didn't seem like a very good omen for our one remaining business. Our secure world didn't seem quite so secure any more.
Unable to shake her morbid curiosity, Marla sat there for hours on end with her eyes glued to CNN. Marla was disgusted as she gloomily checked the status of Europe's airports. Mind you, I wasn't spared. Marla refuses to suffer alone. Since I had made the serious mistake of making fun of Marla's ash cloud fears, this entire incident was now officially "My Fault".

Marla ordered me to watch the unfolding images and suffer right along beside her. And suffer I did. This incident was the most bizarre nightmare I had ever heard of!

I mean, as Volcanic explosions go, this wasn't exactly Dante's Peak. After all, no one's life was in real danger. In fact, rather than running for their lives, true to their Viking heritage, many Icelanders ran towards the volcano just to get a better look.
However, those ash clouds contained a sinister threat that came as a complete surprise to me.

As we all learned, there were several well-documented instances of damage to jet aircraft as the result of an ash encounter. These ash clouds were a legitimate threat to air safety. At least three jetliners had nearly crashed in recent decades after flying near large, actively erupting volcanoes similar to E-15.

For example, shortly after the Galunggung (Indonesia) volcanic event in 1982, a British Airways flight flew directly through an ash cloud. To the pilot's dismay, all four engines cut out! The plane had no power! Thankfully, the plane was able to survive. The plane descended from 36,000 feet to 12,000 feet where the engines could be restarted. Although everyone lived to talk about it, as I remember, the pilot retired shortly after. Who could blame him?

In December 1989, a KLM Boeing flying from Amsterdam to Anchorage encountered similar problems near Mount Redoubt in Alaska. Once the plane landed, they discovered 170 pounds of volcanic ash in each turbine. That's correct. 170 pounds of ash in each engine. It took 3 months of work to repair the plane. The damage was 80 million dollars, a very costly lesson.

Those near-disasters shaped Europe's zero-tolerance policy towards flying airplanes through ash clouds. As the ash cloud soared into the same upper stratospheres shared by airplanes, soon all flights in Europe were grounded. This was a problem on a scale that the airline industry had never faced before. No official wanted to be the one to authorize a deadly flight.

During this process, for an entire week, more than 100,000 flights were grounded. 10 million passengers stranded. Millions of lives were seriously disrupted by this strange quirk of nature. The airline industry suffered tremendously, losing over 3 billion dollars.

CNN images of grounded planes, endless lines of customers sleeping on airport floors, and the helpless looks of frustration convinced both Marla and me that we never wanted to participate in this kind of suffering if we could possibly avoid it.

Fortunately for us, the ash cloud began to dissipate after a week of complete human misery. Fool that I am, I assumed the coast was now clear. I made the mistake of telling Marla not to worry any more. Dumb move. When will I learn?

Sure enough, for the second time my words came back to haunt me. Just a couple days before we were ready to leave, that damn volcano began spewing out a new round of ash. Airports in Ireland and Scotland were forced to close again. Heathrow, the famed London airport that was our initial destination, was located a bit more south and stayed open. However the airport posted warnings it was considering closing. Marla glowered daggers at me.

For the next couple days, it was touch and go. Heathrow did close for a day, and then magically reopened. We were the lucky ones. Our flight was good to go.

However, I wondered if we really were safe. I will admit I probably had the same thoughts as all the other millions of people who chose to fly... am I on the flight that will make aviation history as the first plane to crash due to the ash cloud? Not the most pleasant thought.

I wasn't the only person in our group worried.  One woman in the group was convinced flying was not a good idea and chose to stay home. Her decision cost her a $900 cruise trip... and a lot of fun too.  If we had crashed, I suppose she would have had the last laugh.

As it stood, our group did make it safely to Oslo. Thank goodness


Marla and I encountered a strange disruption at Heathrow.  Wendy Weston, another group member, said she ran into a similar problem.

We believe our problem
was caused by a mysterious incident that occurred on May 4 at Bush Intercontinental, the same day as our flight.  Several SSQQ people had their flight delayed thanks to a bomb threat. Apparently a luggage handler saw smoke coming out of a suitcase and called the bomb squad. Soon the airport was crawling with feds. It turned out to be nothing more than an aerosol spray can that chose an unfortunate moment to get overheated.

However, just a couple days earlier a legitimate bomb threat in New York had been accompanied by smoking fumes as well. The coincidence was unfortunate, so no one can fault the luggage handler for being careful. These days, we have to take everything seriously.

Unfortunately, the exploding hair spray can had consequences for Marla. When we landed at Heathrow, this incident at Bush was simultaneously taking place. No one at Heathrow knew the incident would turn out to be harmless. Instead, all airports were on heightened alert status. In particular, all flights coming from Houston were probably being singled out for added scrutiny... especially women carrying deadly hair spray!

And guess who had a can of hair spray in her carryon? Marla was made utterly miserable at Heathrow.

As background information, Marla's biggest fear was being separated from her luggage and her precious makeup. The fear of going on a nine-day cruise without makeup was too much to bear. So Marla made sure to carry her complete makeup kit with her. I guess you have to be a woman to completely understand this concern.

Now, as a point of personal disclosure, let me say that I myself brought no makeup on my carryon. Nor hair spray. I preferred to save my space for cashews, Reese's peanut butter cups, and old Steven Seagal movies to watch on my portable movie box. It's a long flight, right?

While Steven Seagal made it past airport security with no problem, Marla was stopped on two different occasions at Heathrow for lengthy searches.

It didn't help that we had only moments available to catch our connecting flight to Oslo. Marla was frantic to traverse the giant airport and catch her plane. I suppose her look of desperation didn't help matters. Once they spotted her expensive makeup kit complete with deadly hair spray, Marla was a marked woman.

Of course, at the time these problems developed, we had no idea about the bomb threat back in Houston. It wasn't until the next day that we were able to put two and two together. All we knew is that something weird was going on where Marla was concerned.
First Marla was stopped at an initial checkpoint, a delay that cost us 5 minutes. The man pulled Marla aside and emptied her entire pocketbook and her entire carryon for close inspection. I raised an eyebrow. I myself have been stopped a couple times, but I have never seen Marla stopped before. Furthermore, this kind of intense scrutiny was unprecedented. This was very disconcerting not only for my wife, but for me as well. Something was going on here.

Finally the first guard decided everything was kosher and waved us on. We walked down the hall until we reached the line for the metal detector and the X-ray machine.

When it was Marla's turn, the security guards jumped on her with a vengeance. She was immediately singled out for special treatment. I was actually surprised with the energy that they displayed. I wondered to myself if the previous guard had warned them to take a closer look because they wasted no time working Marla over. I was very concerned.

The poor woman had to practically strip naked. Take this off. Take that off. Next she was subjected to a vigorous pat-down. Nor was this done in private; it was conducted right in front of the metal detector with dozens of spectators. As you might imagine, there were some much appreciative male travelers who carefully watched this particular scenario unfold. I of course did NOT dare grin, but this was welcome theater to the highly amused men.

Marla's ordeal was not over. After the provocative pat-down, the security lady decided Marla was still under suspicion. Now the woman started opening Marla's makeup bottles one by one. She peered in, smelled the makeup, stuck her finger in and licked the makeup to taste it. Then she shook the bottles for good measure. The guard still wasn't satisfied. Now the woman subjected Marla's makeup to an on-the-spot chemical analysis. She got out Q-Tips, took swabs to place on small glass slides, placed drops of special chemicals on top, and then placed the samples under a powerful microscope to see if there was an ominous reaction. They had a complete field laboratory!

Almost immediately the woman started to nod as she peered into the lens... poor half-naked Marla turned pale white with worry as she watched in horror. What did the woman see that was so interesting?! I've heard that a woman's look can kill, but I had never realized that it was the makeup that made women so dangerous.

The security guard was a frowning, humorless woman who clearly took her job seriously. She thoroughly tested several different bottles. The security guard spent nearly ten minutes with the field analysis. Marla was fit to be tied as the precious moments ticked off the clock. I am sure the worried expression didn't help make her look innocent.

Finally the woman decided the makeup was harmless. She placed the dozen bottles of makeup back in Marla's bag. In the meantime, Marla had almost finished getting dressed. She had tucked her shirt back in, put her belt back on, put her sweater back on as well as her windbreaker, plus one of her boots.

Marla was still hopping around on one foot trying to get the other boot on when she looked up and saw the security woman start to toss her makeup bag into the trash can! Marla screamed, "You can't do that! That's Lancome!"

The woman gave Marla an uncomprehending stare. It wasn't a hostile look, but rather a confused one. That's when I got it. This woman wore no makeup. She had no idea what "Lancome" meant. Meanwhile Marla was practically on her knees begging for makeup mercy. Please Please Please don't throw that bag away! That makeup is irreplaceable! Marla was nearly in tears.

The woman hesitated, thought about it for a moment, and then finally relented. She returned Marla's makeup bag with a slight bemused smile.

Marla was a puddle of nerves. She hugged the makeup bag protectively to her chest with one hand, put on the boot with her other hand, and let out a huge sigh of relief. The ordeal was over.

Suddenly to my surprise, Marla turned her head abruptly and took a hard look at me. Speaking of looks that can kill, I barely had enough time to wipe the grin off my face and replace it with a marriage-saving expression of deep concern.

Whew. That was close.

Then I opened my mouth, a problem I have from time to time. I cheerfully suggested, "Why don't you and the security guard kiss and make up!?"

She didn't speak to me on the next flight to Norway.



As Marla and I prepared to board the Vision of the Seas, we were handed an odd piece of paper. It was a health questionnaire asking us if we were sick. I had never been asked to sign a document like this on a previous trip, but I could see they weren't kidding. Without a signature, I would stay on shore.

Fortunately, I wasn't sick. Neither was Marla. In fact, we were both feeling pretty good.

Last year's big adventure had been our Barcelona 2009 cruise. Although that trip had been a slam dunk success, the Continental plane flight over the Atlantic had been extremely unpleasant. It was a small plane that gave a six foot man like myself no room to move. My knees felt like they were in my chest. My shoulders spilled out into the aisles. All night long, people brushed up against me as they made their way through the narrow aisles. I got no rest at all. The ten hour flight left me with more aches and pains than I have ever experienced before. I was miserable. Nor was Marla spared. She said she was just as uncomfortable the whole night long.

Live and learn. So for this 2010 flight, Marla had decided to give British Airways a first try. Good move. The plane was much more spacious. Huge difference! I was so comfortable that I slept for practically the entire flight.

Plus Marla had decided to fly us in a day early to help overcome jet lag. As a result, we were both feeling pretty good as we prepared to begin our cruise trip. We weren't sick so I signed the document without hesitation. However, I was on guard now. There had to be a reason behind this health declaration.

Sure enough, I was right. Marla and I had just climbed aboard a Plague Ship.

It didn't take us long to figure out something was wrong. The Vision of the Seas was fighting a serious outbreak of Norovirus. Our first clue was the fact that we were not allowed to go to our cabin immediately. I had never heard of this before. I had no idea what the reason was for the delay. As Marla and I strolled around, we saw Annie Fletcher and Richard Byrd at a table. We sat down to say hi. That's when Annie leaned over and whispered that she had heard a rumor of a Norovirus outbreak. They were still trying to disinfect the cabins at this very moment.

I frowned. Norovirus is often referred to as "The Cruise Disease." It is a gastrointestinal illness that usually lasts for one to two days. Apparently cruise ships are very vulnerable to outbreaks because everyone is confined to a limited space, making it easier for the virus to spread. Other environments that see Norovirus outbreaks include prisons and hospitals, but for some reason only the cruise ships get the publicity. If forced to guess, we all have sympathy for anyone who gets very sick on their vacation, no matter how brief the illness. Vacations are supposed to be immune from life's problems; otherwise they aren't a vacation.

All the unwelcome publicity aside, Norovirus is hardly limited to cruise ships. I am certainly no stranger to this disease. I was sick with the identical problem after eating tainted Mexican food a couple months back. My painful memory told me this was one illness I definitely wanted to avoid if I could. However, putting things into perspective, this was not bubonic plague, ebola or ecoli we were talking about. Noro is no picnic, but it isn't fatal and it doesn't last very long.

Once we got in our cabin, we turned on the TV. To the ship's credit, they came right out and admitted the previous trip had seen an outbreak of Noro. Using a taped message from the Captain, he explained the illness.

Symptoms typically begin between 24 and 48 hours after infection with the virus. Sudden onset of nausea is usually the first sign of infection. The first stage includes about six hours of periodic vomiting and diarrhea. Stage Two usually involves 12 to 18 hours of bed rest. The victims often experience a mild fever, aching limbs, and headaches. Symptoms typically disappear after a day or two.

The Captain recommended we wash our hands at every possible opportunity. He also said to avoid raw, unwashed foods during a norovirus outbreak which was kind of odd since someone had just delivered a plate of fruit to our cabin. How were we supposed to know if it was safe or not? The Captain concluded his message by assuring us that today's thorough ship-wide disinfection process should prevent a similar problem on this trip. I crossed my fingers and hoped that he was correct.

I had heard that Noro was a problem on some cruise ships, but I had never been on a ship with this problem before. I went to the bathroom and washed my hands, then put the problem out of my mind.

On Day Two, a day at sea, I encountered no problems with Noro.

Day Three was our trip to Paris. For some reason, Marla was mysteriously irritable. She assured me it wasn't anything I did. She just didn't feel good. We ate lunch at a lovely outdoor café. I wolfed my delicious sandwich down with a passion, but Marla said her food tasted terrible. She was so disgusted with her sandwich that she only ate half of it.

Nor was her complaining limited just to this café. All year long Marla had talked about French croissants. However, the croissants she purchased today did nothing for her. In fact, she said she had no appetite at all.

That night at dinner Marla barely touched her food. Then she looked at me and said she needed to go back to the cabin. I nodded and said I would catch up to her in a moment.

Sure enough, as I entered the room, the festivities had just begun. Marla was very sick; she definitely had Noro. Yuck. I can't say for sure, but for the rest of the night Marla seemed to make about one trip to the restroom every hour. She was in a lot of pain during these episodes, but the pain would soon subside after the deed was done. Mostly Marla was exhausted and full of aches.
On Day Four, we were scheduled to go visit Omaha Beach, the site of the most difficult D-Day Landing. Marla told me she wanted me to go, but that she preferred to stay in the cabin and rest. The worst was over. If necessary, she could make it to the phone. Besides, my trip was only half a day. Marla figured she could spare me that long.

What do I tell our friends? Marla said for now it would be easier if I told them she had a headache. That would buy her some time to see how this illness progressed.

Marla's biggest fear was being quarantined and forced to stay in the ship's hospital for several days. If she was going to be sick, she preferred to at least be sick in her own room. In her experience, it was much easier to get the needed rest in her quiet cabin than having hospital people bugging you all day long. I said I completely agreed.

When I returned that afternoon from my trip, Marla was feeling much better. In fact, she was ready for her first big meal of the day. Marla wanted a smoothie. I laughed and immediately went about procuring one for her. Marla absolutely loved her smoothie. She took little sips all day long. Marla was so cute about that drink; for the rest of the trip she complimented me on being kind enough to go get the smoothie for her the moment she asked. Good grief.

Personally, I felt guilty throughout the previous night because I didn't know enough about medicine to alleviate her pain. It is very difficult to see a loved one suffer, even when you know it isn't that serious.

For the rest of the afternoon, I quietly laid on the cabin couch reading a book on D-Day while Marla slept. I wondered how long it would be before it was my turn.

When dinnertime came along, Marla said she was strong enough to join me, but preferred not to go lest she infect someone else. Besides, all she really wanted to eat was soup. Room service could handle that.

What should I tell our friends? Marla smiled. Tell them the truth. No point in hiding it. I nodded. I agreed with her.

Of course everyone was worried about Marla. They were all sympathetic. They were also clearly worried. Marla was the first person from our group to drop. Would there be more?

Yes, there would be more. By the time the trip ended, Marla speculated that seven different people out of 36 had fallen prey to the Norovirus. In addition there were several more people who had experienced problems, but preferred to blame their woes on seasickness, not the virus.

As it turned out, the Norovirus was a frequent topic of conversation for the rest of the trip. Every night as our group ate dinner, we would compare notes. We would share what we had learned that day and idly speculate what was really causing this outbreak. In a way, it was kind of funny to be talking about such a disgusting topic right in the middle of dinner. On the other hand, we were all so comfortable with each other that no one seemed to mind.

I have to be honest. As grim as it was to learn that my friends had gotten sick, I was fascinated by the medical aspects. It was a huge mystery. We all wanted to be the ones to discover what was causing so many people to get sick.

This was probably the first time in my life where I could see why the practice of medicine could be so fascinating... and frustrating too. This event was occurring right in front of my eyes. Maybe if I paid close attention, I could figure it out.

In fact, my own wife had gotten it. I had been right at her side the entire trip before she got sick. Why did she get it, but not me? Right from the start, Marla had announced she was determined not to get sick. She washed her hands constantly. In addition, she refused to use the public toilets. When she walked the stairs, Marla held her hands in the air lest she touch something.

As the days passed, I was baffled by the fact that Marla had gotten it and I hadn't. I wracked my brains to retrace our steps in Day One and Day Two. What had Marla done that I hadn't? Had she eaten something different?

Looking for more clues, I started to make friends among the ship's crew. They were more than willing to discuss the problem. At every opportunity, I would pump them with questions about the virus. To my surprise, they said very few of the crew got sick.

I thought that was an odd thing to say since Jasmina, our group liaison, had been sick with it on the second day of our trip. Obviously the ship's staff wasn't invulnerable.

I also learned from my chats that our current trip was the THIRD TRIP IN A ROW with the problem. I later learned that this same ship had a huge problem with the norovirus earlier in the year back when it was stationed in Brazil.

I often wondered if someone among the crew was responsible for the continued outbreaks. After all, once the passengers left the ship, they took the virus with them. So what was getting the NEXT CROP OF PASSENGERS SICK?

Once I discovered that FIVE DIFFERENT VOYAGES on this ship had experienced Noro, I began to wonder if there was a Norovirus equivalent of Typhoid Mary on board this ship. Typhoid Mary was the first person in the United States to be identified as a 'healthy carrier' of typhoid fever. In 1906, she played a big part in spreading the disease throughout New York.

Over the course of her career as a cook, she was known to have infected 53 people, at least three of whom died from the disease. Her notoriety is in part due to her vehement denial of her own role in spreading the disease, together with her refusal to cease working as a cook. She was forcibly quarantined twice by public health authorities and died in quarantine. It is possible that she was born with the disease, as her mother had typhoid fever during her pregnancy.

No one on the ship believed my "Noro Mary" theory. The staff members didn't think they were responsible. The ship's personnel liked to blame the outbreak on the passengers. One person lectured us on the poor hygiene of the Scandinavian people. Yet another person said in the city of Santos, Brazil, a mediocre water supply was responsible for spreading the disease throughout the town. People from Santos then brought the disease on board. This happened back in March.

My favorite waitress was Michelle from Brazil. She said typically she was as strong as a horse. However one night in the dining room, a man stumbled trying to sit down. Just as she reached to steady him, the man coughed directly in her face. The next day she caught the Norovirus.

Although the research suggests that the virus is not transmitted by air, it is quite likely that Michelle received a droplet of infected saliva in the cough spray. Therefore her story makes complete sense.


One of my favorite people was Erik from San Diego by way of Las Vegas. Erik, age 26, was the bar manager. He was also the most informed person I talked to about the problem. Erik explained he had acquired his vast knowledge in college. He said his graduation research paper for his hotel management degree had been specifically on the topic of Norovirus.

Erik told me a bunch of good stories. He said back in the Eighties, a Norovirus outbreak had occurred among players and spectators after a football game between the University of Pennsylvania and Cornell. Researchers eventually determined everyone got sick from ice that was contaminated with norovirus.

Erik said this ice story showed just tough this virus is. It is the second most common virus after the cold virus. In fact, more dangerous viruses like hepatitis C and HIV can't survive being frozen and will die soon after they're out of the body. This explains why you are unlikely to catch the HIV or Hep C from contact with a surface touched by an infected person.

Unlike these two more dangerous viruses, the norovirus is so tough it can linger on surfaces like a hand rail for a long time waiting for an unsuspecting person to come along and inadvertently touch it.

So who puts the virus on the hand rail to begin with? Upon my questioning, Erik took a deep sigh. He didn't really want to say this out loud, but I told him to go ahead. He said the virus is contained in both fecal matter and vomit. Erik said I could only catch it through direct contact. Let's say an infected person forgets to wash their hands properly after a bout with diarrhea, then wanders out on the ship. All it would take would be just a thin film on the finger that touches a door knob or the handle on a toilet. The next person who touches that same spot can pick up the virus.

Erik wasn't finished. He said that even if a person DOES INDEED TOUCH AN INFECTED SPOT, THEY STILL MIGHT NOT GET SICK. Erik said the person would also have to then touch their mouth, their nose, or their eyes for the virus to enter the body.

That is why people should wash their hands constantly. In this way, their hands would be purified before they accidentally touched their face.

Before we finished our talk, I asked Erik point-blank if the disease was airborne. Erik shook his head no. Absolutely not. It is transmitted strictly by touch. Okay, if you say so (let me add I later found no professional article that disagreed with Erik's position).

After my conversation with Erik, I thought about what he said about not touching the face. I found myself watching everyone at dinner that night. I was amazed to see EVERYONE at the table touched their face with their hands at some point in the meal. They didn't even realize it. One person rubbed their nose. Another person touched the corner of their eye. Several people scratched their face. One person licked some spilled soup off their finger without even thinking about it.

Later that same night, I went back to the cabin. Having trouble turning a page in my book, I licked my finger in order to help turn the stubborn page. I groaned to myself. I was determined not to get sick and yet I had just violated Erik's Golden Rule #2: Don't touch your face!

I didn't catch the Norovirus, but it wasn't because I was tougher or smarter than anyone else. I made the same mistakes as everyone else. Apparently I was just lucky not to have touched a hot spot shortly before touching my own face.

There are certain universal precautions that are even more important when you're aboard a ship. As important as washing your hands, you have to learn to KEEP YOUR HANDS AWAY FROM YOUR EYES, NOSE AND MOUTH. This is a normal human condition. If you sit at a restaurant and watch people eat for five minutes you will see what I mean.

Many people think that shaking hands is the problem. Erik said this is a misconception. Most viruses are not spread by hand to hand contact alone. They are spread by hand to hand to mouth (or eyes or nose). If you had the virus ONLY on your hands, you wouldn't get sick. You still have to touch your face before you wash your hands to complete the nasty transaction.

I might add as I reread my text on this part of the story, I just caught myself with my fingers touching my mouth. It seems impossible not to touch our own face. We touch our faces all the time before we can even think about it! Habits of a lifetime cannot be changed overnight, which explains why this nasty little virus keeps finding new hosts.

Speaking of finding new hosts, as the cruise progressed, people were dropping like flies. One night at dinner we heard 'Alpha Alpha Alpha west corner of the dining room'. Someone had a virus-related accident right at the dinner table somewhere else in the room. Yuck.
On another night, I looked around and wondered where everyone was. I realized the room was only half-full. Did this mean what I thought it meant?

Rumors pegged the total number of cases around 300 passengers. Now before you get too alarmed, remember that I have been on eighteen cruises and this was the FIRST TIME I have ever encountered Noro. In addition, I have the same chance of the getting the virus at various Houston restaurants. As long as we wash our hands before and after dinner and don't touch our faces between hand washing, theoretically we are safe.

On the other hand, 300 is an awfully high number. Out of the total ship population of 2000, I would speculate that several hundred more people who caught it didn't report it. I mean, Marla caught it and she is not part of that total because she didn't report it. A couple other people in our group didn't report it either. So maybe 500 people caught Noro ... one in four.

They said it was not spread through the air. Are we to believe that all 500 people simply failed to wash their hands? Marla for one washed her hands constantly and she still got it. That is why I wondered if there was a better explanation, perhaps something in the food and water.

When I returned home, I reviewed several Internet articles on Norovirus.

I thought this blog was interesting:

"Firstly, I think a cruise ship is a prime location for any type of contagious illness to spread - so many people in a confined space!  

Air-conditioning has to take its share of the blame - all that recirculated air, recirculating all the germs too just in case they passed you by the first time round. And if it's not the air-conditioning, then it must be the heat in the general areas. That is bound to cultivate bugs.

My main suspicions though lie with the passengers (yes, I do include myself in that category!).

If these ships are scrupulously cleaned and they certainly appear to be, then somebody must be taking this bug on board. We are all asked at embarkation whether we feel/have been unwell etc. Now can you tell me hand on heart that if you had booked a cruise and been looking forward to it for six, twelve or eighteen months, would you honestly answer 'yes' to those questions and risk being turned away, just because your tummy felt a bit icky? Maybe therein lies your answer - human selfishness. But how the cruise lines ever stop people from lying - well, I can't answer that!"

Then I ran across an Internet article that stated the Food and Drug Administration points to contaminated water as one of the most likely causes of norovirus. I couldn't help but think of Erik's frozen ice story when I saw this.

The FDA report said that "water is the most common source of outbreaks and may include water from municipal supplies, wells, recreational lakes, swimming pools, as well as contaminated water stored aboard cruise ships".

Well, I drank the ship's water throughout the trip. So did Marla. She got sick; I didn't. One woman at our table who purchased bottled water every night got sick. Draw your own conclusions, but I don't think it was the water… at least not on this trip.

Another weird feature is that within our group, only two men got sick while 7 to 10 women got sick. Everyone thought this was significant, but no one had a theory to explain the disparity. I didn't dare suggest my secret makeup theory.

Besides the water, I wondered if perhaps the food supplies might be contaminated. The same FDA report suggested that "shellfish and salad ingredients are the foods most often implicated in norovirus outbreaks. Ingestion of raw or insufficiently steamed clams and oysters poses a high risk for infection with Norwalk virus. Foods other than shellfish are contaminated by ill food handlers."

It would be interesting to determine the job positions of the crew members infected with norovirus. For example, I read a CDC report that sixty-nine crew members were reported ill on another recent cruise with a large outbreak. How many of these crewmembers were cooks, waiters or food handlers?

On the other hand, there are experts who discount the food and water theory. One article I read said this:

"Health experts confirm that norovirus on cruise ships is not generally sourced from food or water, but rather from direct contact with a person with the "stomach bug." It is also passed along indirectly on objects or surfaces previously touched by someone with norovirus, such as handrails or elevator buttons."

Personally, I don't agree. Assuming that this virus cannot be transmitted via the air - the most common method of spreading disease - then I lean towards the contaminated water and food theory. I doubt seriously there are enough contaminated surfaces on that ship to explain the large number of sick people. You have no idea how hard the ship's personnel worked throughout this cruise. Every day I saw dozens and dozens of crew members spraying disinfectant on every possible public surface in sight.

Those people worked themselves to the bone trying to rid the ship of this virus. For example, my Brazilian friend Michelle the waitress and her partner Caroline both told me they were required to come to their station an hour earlier than usual every morning to scrub down their dining room area of responsibility.

The ship was trying as hard as it could. For example, the day Marla got sick, I asked for a refund on her trip to Omaha Beach. The ticket clearly said "No Refund". Nevertheless, when I explained to the man how sick she was, he gave us a credit with no further questions asked. I was impressed.

Another woman in our group got sick about the same time as Marla. However, unlike Marla, she bravely trudged down to the ship's hospital. They gave her a free shot and some free medication, sent her back to her room and told her to rest. The lady reported almost instant relief from her problems. When Marla and I heard this story, we both looked at each other. Too bad we were so suspicious. Marla might have cut her suffering in half.

In my opinion, the ship was bending over backwards trying to alleviate the suffering.

I realize there is a natural tendency to blame the ship, but after watching the superhuman efforts to clean the bathrooms and cabins on this infected cruise ship, I have to say the ship personnel were doing everything they had any control over.

Let me add that my Internet research revealed that norovirus happens to every single cruise line.

So rather than blame the ship, Marla and I both adopted the attitude that we were all in this virus problem together. I talked with every staff member I met hoping to come up with the key to the puzzle, but in the end I came up empty. My first case as medical detective was a failure.

When I got home, my daughter asked me if my fear of this illness would stop me from taking more cruises. I told her no.

I said that even though I had my first cruise experience with the virus, I also know that very few ships actually have the problem. In my case, only one trip in 18 has had the problem. Those are pretty good odds.

Besides, every time I go to a restaurant in my hometown I am taking the same risk. Do these people practice safe hygiene? Do they wash their food properly? What about their silverware? How am I supposed to know the truth about this restaurant until it is too late?

Usually when these problems occur, our only remedy is to say, "I'm never going back there again." But in the case of a cruise ship, after watching how hard they fight the problem, I would give them another chance.

Even if I do run into another situation like this, I also know that if I am careful, I have a good chance of not catching it.

And if I do catch it, I am comforted by the fact that Marla survived and was still able to have a great trip. I would do the same if I am ever as equally unlucky as my wife.

Besides that, even in the presence of three straight outbreaks, the ship's crew didn't seem worried or in any way panicked. That Captain was still shaking every hand in sight the last time I looked.

So when I compare the slight chance of catching the illness and weigh this against the benefits of having a wonderful time and sharing experiences with family and friends, I have no fear.


If I had one suggestion, I think if I ran across another Noro problem in the future on a cruise ship, I would wear gloves.

Although I am sure I would get disapproving looks or at least get teased, this simple precaution might not be such a bad idea. I would simply explain to people I am wearing the gloves to remind me not to touch my face. I might add the gloves would also protect me from touching an infected surface.

Although I am sure the cruise ships wish to avoid the stigma of posted pictures of travelers wearing gloves, there might be some interesting benefits. What if everyone on board wore gloves and people STILL GOT SICK? Then at least the medical people could discard the Touch Theory and concentrate their attention elsewhere.

And what if everyone wore gloves and the problem went away? Once you have three trips in a row with the same problem, you would think they would consider a different approach towards solving the problem.

In summary, I realize this has not been the most pleasant story I have written, but I am sure you understand the purpose of sharing this story is simple - forewarned is forearmed.    RA

Oslo 2010 Home Page

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-----Original Message-----
From: Kathy W
Sent: Friday, May 21, 2010 3:02 PM
Subject: New Career


I really enjoyed reading your cruise article (all 15 pages of it)! You really really really write well. You are amusing and informative; straightforward and entertaining. I really think you should submit some of your writings to magazines or even write a travel journal. You certainly capture my undivided attention. You have a gift and a unique connection with those you communicate with (either by newsletter or in person). You really are special-- please know this comes from my heart! Do consider writing more and sharing more of your talent with others. You have a great way of looking at life and the world!!

Please also tell Marla, I am amazed and in awe of her tenacity and endurance of unpleasant occurrences. She is a really trooper and one
hell of a woman. The best to both of you.

Take care and may your "semi" retirement be a gift to you.  



From: Jack B
Sent: Saturday, May 22, 2010 1:28 PM
To: Rick Archer
Subject: The dreaded norovirus, swine flu, any flu, don't get sick again.

Hey Rick,

Gald to see you are back safe and sound. Read your cruise adventures, interesting as always.

About the norovirus, did you ever woinder why you did not get the disease, yet Marla did and she was in the same room as you? Well there is a reason and its simple once you know it. To not get sick you must have proper concentrations of vitamin D in your body. Most people are difficient in vitamin D and are very prone to getting sick. If you get your vitamin D levels up to where they should be then the chances of getting sick are very slim.

Vitamin D comes from sun exposure. Some quack dermatologist put out the word that sun exposure is bad for you, ti causes cancer and premature aging, now everyone is believing it (yes it is if you get too much). But getting proper amounts of sunshine is vital, and not just on the arms and face, it needs more body contact.

P.S. Vitamin D information is fairly recent, most doctors don't know about it. Get the correct blood test done to determine how much vitamin D you need before you go supplementing on your next cruise.

P.S.S. Any flu vaccine is bad for you. It is a good thing that Marla did not get an injection on board

(Rick Archer's Note: Marla said a Vitamin D deficiency is fairly common among women undergoing menopause.  Marla felt this suggestion about the Vitamin D deficiency might have merit.


LETTER THREE - Richard and Annie from the SSQQ Group writing about their trip

From: Richard Byrd
Sent: Saturday, May 22, 2010 3:39 PM
To: SSQQ Newsletter
Subject: Re: May 2010 SSQQ Travel Newsletter 3 - Volcanos and Viruses

Hi Rick,

Aside from being entertained by your witty writing--especially about heroine Marla :), we pleasantly relived all over again the exceptional moments on the cruise.  One of them was the Twist Off contest.

Richard said that he did not win the 60s and the 70s Rock and Roll crown because he never did do the twist until that afternoon.  We came late to the Enchanted Evening Lounge and did not know that there was a contest going on.  Richard had a couple of Caiparinha (a Portuguese rum cocktail from the Champagne Bar where Norman the Filippino bartender works his magic) so he felt no shame.  We got on the dance floor and were having a good time polishing the floor with our shoe soles.  Suddenly, a Royal Caribbean staff person stuck a RCC key chain in our hands.  We thought how nice of them to do that, and didn't know we were chosen to be the semi finalists.  Fear and inhibition washed over Richard, who is by nature a quiet individual.  I whispered to him, "Too late to 'regrate'.  Let's go for broke."  

I could not tell if Richard heeded my words, but I went for broke all right.  We came in second while the sciatic nerve by my lower back ceased up.  And I was in pain for the next two days.  With the sick bay full of N. virus stricken passengers, I hesitated about going there for some muscle relaxing medication until the pain was so excruciating that I had to brave into the danger zone. There were three patients in the waiting room, and one in the examination room with the doctor. The harried looking nurse spent no time dispensing me some drug after a brief consultation with the doctor in the next room.   And I made sure I touched nothing except the medication envelope from the nurse.  As I limped back up into my cabin, I could not help thinking how they've managed to escape being sick.  Maybe they were infected many times over and have developed an immunity to the virus.

I guess you can call my condition as a twist on being sick during this cruise.  

Thanks for the memory of the most unusual cruise we have ever gone on.  

Thanks for the dance classes, too.  For a couple hours each time, we were transported back home to SSQQ as we were stepping out to your calling.  There will never be an SSQQ like the one we knew.  

Annie and Richard



(Rick Archer's Note:  Here is a chain of letters discussing Norovirus on the SSQQ sailing from May 6 through May 15.  As you will note, 300 is the accepted number.  However I contend the correct number is more likely 500.)

May 7th, 2010, 05:21 AM
Cool Cruiser Join Date: Feb 2008
Location: Sussex, England

My wife and I were on the affected Vision cruise this past week, and despite the relatively low numbers of people isolated the problem was much more widespread.

We saw one lady openly vomiting in to a plastic bag in the Centrum while bar staff looked on! We saw sick being cleaned up in a number of stairwells despite exceptionally calm seas. Other people we spoke to had one guest ill in the room, but for fear of their whole party being isolated did not report their symptoms.

My wife and I both returned from Oslo yesterday and since yesterday morning (departure morning) we have both been suffering with stomach cramps, diarrhea and nausea. We have been to the doctors this morning who confirmed Norovirus.

It's a bit like crime statistics, the number of crimes reported and recorded are much, much less than the crimes actually committed. Just because such a low number were isolated does not mean that the outbreak wasn't significant.

I don't understand what Royal Caribbean can do to stop this happening, the ship was clean from the outset with hand sanitizers everywhere, but we both became infected after all the extra precautions were put in place.

May 11th, 2010, 05:12 PM
Cool Cruiser Join Date: Apr 2009
Location: Riga
Posts: 114

then it happened again. Aprox. 146 got ill this time...

May 16th, 2010, 05:14 PM
Cool Cruiser Join Date: May 2010
Location: Norway

And again!!! (15th of May)

300 sick this time on the Cruise that ended 15th of May.

The boat was then cleaned and left from oslo on a 4/5 night Cruise the same day.
Im not surpriced if xxx ppls get sick again..

Im leaving from Oslo on a 7 day Cruise 12.06 and im a bit sceptic.

#7 May 19th, 2010, 02:07 PM
Cool Cruiser Join Date: Apr 2009
Location: Riga
Posts: 114

one professor in micro biology suggest to gas the whole ship to kill the virus..

#8 May 19th, 2010, 05:51 PM
Cool Cruiser Join Date: Nov 2006
Location: Owings Mills, Maryland

Originally Posted by NordicPrince
94 of 2100 does not a major event make. That's only about 4.5 % of the passengers plus 800 crew not included.

Much ado about nothing.


I doubt you would say that if you contracted noro on a cruise.


#9 May 21st, 2010, 11:08 AM
Cool Cruiser Join Date: Feb 2010
Location: Southern Ontario Canada
Posts: 5

My husband and I were on the sailing on May 15. We were not happy when we were told of the situation on the cruise prior to us. RCC was suppose to have done a complete cleaning of the ship before the next batch of vacations were boarded. We were not allowed to board the ship until4:15 that afternoon and it was a drizzly and damp afternoon. When we got to the pier after walking around a few hours I told the one employee I was not going to go back out into the drizzly afternoon for another hour or so and wait until they were done cleaning the ship. She turned to a co-worker and said to find us 2 umbrellas. My reply was "not". She informed us that it was our travel agents responsibility to notify us of what was going on. Funny thing was that we booked the cruise online at RCC and they were our travel agents. I had my blackberry with me in Oslo so there was not one excuse for them to not contact me. We would not have checked out of the Grand Hotel until later in the day if we had known. You could tell that RCC was doing everything in its power to try and prevent this from happening on our cruise. We were not even allowed to pour our own coffee or get our own food in the windjammer cafe. I do have to commend them for trying to make it better even though our ship also came down with the virus. This definitely will not stop me from cruising with RCC as i do feel they have done such amazing things to prevent this from happening, but maybe a complete fumigation is the answer.

I will keep my fingers crossed for the cruise that departed from Oslo yesterday that they stay healthy as they were also being detained at boarding so the ship could do a complete cleaning again.

#10 May 21st, 2010, 01:56 PM
Cool Cruiser Join Date: May 2000
Location: North Carolina
Posts: 50

I was on the May 15th sailing too. When I arrived at my hotel (booked thru the cruise line) a letter awaited notifying me of the delayed boarding. RCCL provided a hospitality room at the hotel with water, tea, coffee and sandwiches for us to wait in.....the RCCL person told us of two more delays while we were waiting. So we didn't leave until it was almost time to board the ship.....thank goodness as there were not enough seats in the arrival tent.

#11 May 22nd, 2010, 12:59 AM
Cool Cruiser Join Date: Aug 2009
Location: Phoenix, AZ

Originally Posted by Bridallady
... but maybe a complete fumigation is the answer.

We were on the May 6 sailing. We were told that 340 people had contracted the virus. We were also told that we were being "kicked off" early and the subsequent boarding was delayed because they were hiring a company to fumigate the ship. I guess they didn't do it.

#12 May 22nd, 2010, 03:29 AM
Cool Cruiser Join Date: May 2000
Location: North Carolina
Posts: 50

The May 15th sailing had everyone off by 7:30ish in the morning I think.

#13 May 22nd, 2010, 09:06 AM
Cool Cruiser Join Date: Oct 2003
Location: Killeen, Tx
Posts: 1,842

Always a problem when you stick a bunch of people is such a small area. You have to take steps no matter where you are to keep this stuff at bay. Happens on land all the time, just doesn't make the news.


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