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Travel industry and flu: Cruise ships follow stringent cleaning policies

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VANCOUVER, B.C. - Eric Sedore was working on a family cruise ship touring Europe in August 2005 when passengers started vomiting, and it wasn't a bout of seasickness.

The Norwalk virus had rocked the boat.

"There were people throwing up everywhere. And they made a special team of people set up to deal with any cases," Sedore recalled.

"If you saw anybody sick or there was people barfing - 'Stay away from it, don't touch it, call this number' and they'll come and clean it up with disinfectant."

Though it was likely no more than 10 people were ill, the Sapphire Princess hoisted up the "sick ship" flag to signal passengers in quarantine, and as a result, the 2,000 people aboard were refused visits to Portugal and Spain.

"They got a five-and-a-half day cruise, not seven, and it wasn't even enjoyable," Sedore said, adding when the ship returned to shore, the crew sterilized it top to bottom.""

This travel season, another bug is threatening. Canadian health officials are mounting a campaign warning the public that a second wave of the pandemic H1N1 flu virus could strike as winter draws nearer, leaving no place untouched, including cruise ships, planes and trains.

But despite the ample breeding ground offered by such confined spaces, members of the domestic travel industry say they're more than ready to set sail after weathering the first wave of the virus, also known as swine flu, last spring.

"In the first wave, it was a concern because it was an outbreak and it was reported a little late and there was no vaccine at the time," said Shawn Kilner, owner of Cruise Holidays based in Nanaimo, B.C.

"Now they have knowledge, they have awareness, they have medical savvy. So definitely, there is concern, but now it's well-known and there are solutions to it, as much as there can be."

Cruise ships, known to be hit particularly hard if a virus attacks on board, already follow stringent dining and cleaning policies to prevent outbreaks, Kilner said.

Yet when H1N1 struck last spring, new measures were created by the North American regulatory body Cruise Lines International Association and quickly put in place to keep the virus at bay.

Prior to boarding at any port, all passengers are now screened using a health questionnaire. If any flu-like symptoms are reported, such as fever, cough, runny nose, sore throat, or the person has been in contact with someone who has a confirmed case of H1N1, they'll undergo a second screening.

Medical personnel make case-by-case decisions and can refuse boarding to a passenger who meets conditions for having a suspected case.

If passengers fall ill during their trip, they could be isolated for five to seven days. During that time, they'll be treated by medical staff and have their comfort needs attended by staff.

Should an extreme outbreak occur and more people become sick than staff can handle, ambulances will transport travellers to local health facilities.

At major airports, like those in Vancouver and Toronto, plenty of hand sanitizer has been made available to fliers and regular cleaning has been bumped up another notch.

Heather McCarley, manager of emergency planning at Vancouver International Airport, said all the players met earlier this month as part of a routine exercise to discuss their roles should sickness occur, like several youth from a baseball trip falling ill while in transit.

"I think we're well equipped," she said.

Airlines aren't noticing any dip in bookings at this point and don't expect the worst to pan out, said Robert Palmer, a spokesman for West Jet.

"Canadians are probably taking about the same approach that they took in the spring when the first (H1N1) wave hit," he said. "They read reputable websites, they educated themselves on the facts of this issue and they decided the risk was certainly manageable."

Airlines can refuse to let fliers aboard if they present risky symptoms, he added.

There's been no evidence to suggest ridership will drop for Via Rail either, said spokeswoman Catherine Kaloutsky. If passengers do fall ill aboard a train, procedure is to isolate the individual, ascertain their symptoms and at the first opportune moment, get them medical attention or allow them to disembark.

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