Influenza outbreaks can occur among passengers and crews during the Alaska summertime cruise season. Ill travellers represent a potential source for introduction of novel or antigenically drifted influenza virus strains to the United States. From May to September 2013-2015, the Alaska Division of Public Health, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and two cruise lines implemented a laboratory-based public health surveillance project to detect influenza and other respiratory viruses among ill crew members and passengers on select cruise ships in Alaska.
Cruise ship medical staff collected 2-3 nasopharyngeal swab specimens per week from passengers and crew members presenting to the ship infirmary with acute respiratory illness (ARI). Specimens were tested for respiratory viruses at the Alaska State Virology Laboratory (ASVL); a subset of specimens positive for influenza virus were sent to CDC for further antigenic characterization.
Of 410 nasopharyngeal specimens, 83% tested positive for at least one respiratory virus; 71% tested positive for influenza A or B virus. Antigenic characterization of pilot project specimens identified strains matching predominant circulating seasonal influenza virus strains, which were included in the northern or southern hemisphere influenza vaccines during those years. Results were relatively consistent across age groups, recent travel history, and influenza vaccination status. Onset dates of illness relative to date of boarding differed between northbound (occurring later in the voyage) and southbound (occurring within the first days of the voyage) cruises.
The high yield of positive results indicated that influenza was common among passengers and crews sampled with ARI. This finding reinforces the need to bolster influenza prevention and control activities on cruise ships. Laboratory-based influenza surveillance on cruise ships may augment inland influenza surveillance and inform control activities. However, these benefits should be weighed against the costs and operational limitations of instituting laboratory-based surveillance programs on ships.
Cites: Clin Infect Dis. 2003 May 1;36(9):1095-102 PMID 12715302