(USA TODAY) Another cruise ship has returned to its home port early in the wake of an outbreak of gastrointestinal illness.
Princess Cruises' Houston-based Caribbean Princess arrived back in the city late Thursday, more than 24 hours ahead of schedule.
More than 160 of 3,102 passengers on the vessel have fallen ill with a gastrointestinal illness that the cruise line suspects is norovirus -- a highly contagious infection that causes severe vomiting and diarrhea.
The incident comes just days after a massive outbreak of a norovirus-like illness forced an early end to a sailing of Royal Caribbean's Explorer of the Seas. The ship returned to its home port of Bayonne, N.J. on Wednesday -- two days ahead of schedule -- after more than 20% of 3,071 passengers fell ill.
While the Caribbean Princess' early return will allow time for a thorough cleaning before its next sailing, the decision to return ahead of schedule was prompted not by the outbreak but by a forecast for thick fog over the weekend that could close Houston's port, the line says in a statement sent to USA TODAY.
"We are mindful of our passengers' safety and comfort, as well as the disruption the port's closing will have on their onward travel plans," the statement says.
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Like Explorer of the Seas, the Caribbean Princess was on a Caribbean cruise. The ship set sail from Houston on Jan. 25 with 3,102-passengers aboard and was scheduled to return on Saturday.
Sometimes called the "24-hour flu" even though it is unrelated to influenza, norovirus is the most common cause of gastrointestinal illness in the United States, accounting for about half of all cases, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta. It breaks out regularly in schools, nursing homes, hospitals, offices and other places people congregate.
The norovirus season typically runs from November through March and peaks in January. The illness usually begins suddenly and lasts one to three days. Most people recover without treatment, but some require rehydration with liquids or intravenous fluids.
While the outbreak of gastrointestinal illness on Explorer of the Seas was one of the largest ever on a cruise ship, it occurred amidst a general decline in such incidents. The number of outbreaks on cruise ships sailing from U.S. ports hit a multi-year low last year, continuing a downward trend that began nearly a decade ago as the industry increased prevention efforts.
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The CDC recorded just 9 outbreaks of illnesses such as norovirus on ships in 2013, down from 16 in 2012 and more than 30 as recently as 2006.
The decline comes even as the number of people cruising continues to rise. The Cruise Lines International Association estimates the industry will carry 21.7 million passengers in 2014, up from 15 million in 2010.
Cruise ships arriving in U.S. ports must report all cases of gastrointestinal illness treated by on-board medical staff to the CDC's Vessel Sanitation Program division, and a separate notification is required when the number of cases exceeds 2% of passengers and crew. When the number of cases exceeds 3% of passengers and crew the CDC issues a public report.
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