Glacier Bay Cruiseline kept one of its small cruise ships, the Wilderness Discoverer, in port this week after 18 passengers and crew on a previous voyage came down with flu-like symptoms.
"It's not uncommon for some flu or bug to show up at some time in the season on a boat, whether it's brought on by the passengers or the crew members, and in a close environment like that for there to be some transmission," said Glacier Bay Cruiseline President Greg Dronkert. "This is the first one we've seen of this magnitude."
The Wilderness Discoverer had 108 passengers and crew on board when the virus infected 17 percent of them.
Glacier Bay Cruiseline is owned by Goldbelt, Juneau's Native corporation.
The illness fit the description of the Norwalk virus, which has infected three other cruise lines this summer, said Sue Anne Jenkerson, nurse epidemiologist with the Division of Public Health in Anchorage.
The same week the Wilderness Discoverer was struck, 172 passengers and crew on the Holland America ship Ryndam fell ill. Symptoms of Norwalk virus infection include nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, abdominal cramps, headache and low-grade fever. The infection usually lasts two to three days, without serious long-term health effects.
"It's not unique to the vessel, but Norwalk virus is becoming unique to large congregations of people, such as military bases, summer camps," Jenkerson said. "This has been recurring over the last 10 years."
Norwalk is a particularly hardy virus which spreads quickly through direct or indirect contact. In Alaska it has turned up mostly on board this year, Jenkerson said.
The outbreak on the Wilderness Discoverer has some future passengers wary of boarding the ship on Friday. William Bellows of Rockville, Md., said today from his Juneau bed-and-breakfast that he heard about the illnesses on the Discoverer from another tourist. He said he was "feeling nervous and jittery and talking on the telephone trying to get some information from Glacier Bay Cruiselines."
Cruise lines are now required to notify passengers if there has been a recent outbreak of the virus, but Jenkerson said ships that have had outbreaks and been sanitized are safe.
"Basically once an outbreak has been identified on board a vessel and they've been cleaned up and sanitized, it's one of the safest places you can be," Jenkerson said. "You can get Norwalk anywhere."
While in port the Wilderness Discoverer was sanitized according to guidelines provided by the Division of Public Health and Department of Environmental Conservation, Jenkerson said. Surfaces were scrubbed down with an extra-strong bleach solution twice a day, linens were laundered at 160 degrees, and crew members were required to wear gloves.
"A DEC sanitarian did board the vessel and worked with them to begin this aggressive cleaning after they had voluntarily taken that vessel out of the week's tour," Jenkerson said. "That cruise line has been very cooperative in working with the state seeking ways they could clean up."
Individuals can protect themselves by using good basic sanitation, including frequent hand washing, health authorities said.