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May 2008    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Available to the Public Vol. 23, No. 5   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Proper Liveaboard Hygiene

from the May, 2008 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

What can be more upsetting than to spend big money traveling halfway around the world, only to come up sick in the middle of a trip and have to miss dives? We get many reports from liveaboard divers who note that their trip begins with one person sick and ends with nearly everyone, including the crew, with a cold or the flu. While most of us don’t spend our days worrying about catching a bug, it pays to be cautious in the close quarters of a liveaboard boat. In a warm, moist, tropical environment, where everyone is holding on to the same handrails and turning the same doorknobs, the chance that one sick patron will infect a host of others is quite high.

Although viruses require live hosts to multiply and spread, they can live on inanimate surfaces for up to two hours, giving them a convenient window of opportunity to be picked up by unsuspecting divers. Chlorine bleach is a good germ-buster, says Ernest Campbell, M.D., a blogger for ScubaDoc.com. “A quarter cup of regular laundry bleach in a gallon of cool water is an effective all-purpose disinfectant and can also kill common food pathogens like salmonella and E. coli.” If hygiene is lacking on your liveaboard, suggest the crew use that mixture. You can also carry a chlorine bleach solution in a spray bottle to wipe down railings and doorknobs as you go. Here are some other problem areas:

The mask-rinsing bucket. It’s the perfect collecting and breeding environment for viruses. When everyone is rinsing their masks in the same bucket, they’re not only sharing their crud but also collecting everyone else’s. Avoid that by rinsing your mask in seawater. It’s going to end up there anyway. If you do keep it in the dive deck’s rinse buckets, Campbell says a small amount of chlorine bleach will reduce the bacteria count.

Cups of water. On many liveaboards, water is handed out in cups that are simply rinsed, not sanitized, in a tub of water. And since all cups look alike, it’s easy to confuse one person’s cup with another’s. To prevent cross contamination and relieve crew from having to distribute glasses and collect them for rinsing and refilling, some liveaboards now give passengers their own water bottles, with names written on them. Bring your own bottle anyway, just in case you’re on a liveaboard that doesn’t do this.

The dining room. Most liveaboards don’t have a sink or hand sanitizer station in the dining room. After contaminating their hands on handrails and doorknobs, guests in the dining room have no way of cleaning or sanitizing them, so it’s unwashed hands passing dishes and eating their own food. Installing a sink is expensive, but hand-sanitizing liquid dispensers cost as little as $10.

But the jury is split on the effectiveness of hand sanitizers. Popular ones like Purell and Germ-X contain about 60 percent ethyl alcohol, which strips away the skin’s outer layer of oil, preventing bacteria present in the body from coming to the surface of the hand. Studies done at the Children’s Hospital in Boston and Colorado State University found that alcohol-based sanitizers were better at reducing germs on human hands and reducing gastrointestinal illnesses. But a Purdue University study concluded that while alcohol-based hand sanitizers may kill more germs than plain soap and water, they are killing off the bacteria normally present in the body, not the kinds that make one sick. And another study by French researchers found that the chlorhexidine-based hand sanitizer Nanochlorex was better than Purell at reducing bacterial levels.

If hand sanitizer is on board, by all means use it. But don’t make that the only way you clean your hands. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration recommends that hand sanitizers only be used as an adjunct to soap and water, not a replacement. “Nothing has been conclusively found to be as effective as good old soap and hot water,” says Campbell.

So while you may not wish to go through life like a hypochondriac with an unwarranted fear of germs, a few precautions in the close quarters of a liveaboard -- or resort -- in the tropics could be good insurance against getting a bug that will knock you out of the water for a few days.

-- Kent Roorda and Vanessa Richardson

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