A HAGLEY woman was among several hundred passengers struck down by a “vicious” stomach bug that swept through a ship on a cruise to Norway.

Louise Jew, who was accompanied on the trip by Halesowen dentist Glen Durant, has told how the illness affected more and more of the 1,163 guests aboard Fred Olsen’s flagship, Balmoral, as it sailed across the North Sea to the fjords.

The 510-strong crew aboard the eight-night “Scenic Railways and Phenomenal Fjords” cruise rallied to tend to the affected passengers and to step up hygiene procedures aboard the vessel.

But the cruise was cut short, sailing back into Southampton on Sunday (May 10) – a day earlier than planned - so a deep clean to "systematically sanitize" the entire ship could be carried out ready to welcome guests for a 13-day cruise to Madeira and the Azores, setting off on Monday.

Although Fred Olsen Cruise Lines refuses to confirm the number affected, it is believed that at least 300 – a quarter of the passengers – fell ill.

Norovirus is thought to have been responsible for the sickness and the cruise line suspects it was brought aboard by a passenger, who fell ill on the afternoon of boarding the ship.

Miss Jew, 58, a freelance journalist who works regularly for the Newsquest group, said: “We were just over a day into our cruise from Southampton and approaching Norway when passengers were informed there had been an outbreak of gastroenteritis, which causes diarrhoea and vomiting.

“Hygiene aboard had already been a top priority throughout, with guests encouraged to use hand gel dispensers when going in and out of every area of the ship and to wash their hands frequently.

“But, even so, the virus spread like wildfire, with more and more passengers and crew affected day by day.

“My turn came late on the Wednesday night – and it was truly vicious when it happened, it was so sudden and horrible.

“We reported my illness to the medical centre, which was clearly under siege.

“A member of staff responded quickly to give me advice over the telephone and a nurse later came to see me in the cabin, bringing with her some tablets to allay the symptoms.

“Everyone directly hit by the bug was under orders to stay in their cabin for at least 48 hours after their symptoms ended, to prevent the risk of passing it on to others.”

Miss Jew’s travelling companion, Mr Durant, a dentist in Alexandra Road, Halesowen, managed to escape without catching the bug.

He said: “I was impressed with how members of staff responded – nothing was too much trouble for them.

“They brought in food for Louise when she felt able to eat and, whenever I reported that she needed more water or that we needed the cabin cleaned, they came quickly and dealt with it efficiently and kindly.

“It’s certainly not the experience we wanted on our cruise – but, when it happened, the Fred Olsen crew pulled out all the stops to make sure passengers were well looked after and that everything possible was done to contain the outbreak.”

A Fred Olsen Cruise Lines spokesman said: “It is almost certain that, regrettably, a guest brought the virus on board the ship, as they were physically sick in the afternoon of embarkation and then immediately placed in isolation within their cabin.

“This is despite pre-screening questionnaires and checks prior to boarding, in order to stop anyone who has had any signs of illness.

“Typically, physical symptoms do not become evident until at least 48 hours after contracting the virus, at which point the illness is incredibly contagious.

“Norovirus spreads by touching surfaces as well as person-to-person contact, so it could easily have spread to other people at Southampton Cruise Terminal before they joined the ship.

“It is extremely disappointing that any guests should have a wonderful cruise experience curtailed in what looks like events out of Fred Olsen’s control.”

The early return to Southampton allowed extra time to “systematically sanitize the ship and terminal” before the next cruise.

Passengers, who paid from £799 per head for the cruise, were offered a refund of a day’s cost of the holiday due to the early return and “out of pocket” expenses.

They were also given a voucher for up to 50 per cent off a future Norwegian fjord cruise.

The spokesman added: “At Fred Olsen Cruise Lines, the health, safety and well-being of all our guests and crew is paramount, and we believe our systems for preventing the spread of illness on board our ships are amongst the best within the industry.”

Miss Jew said: “Fortunately, although I was laid up for the second half of the cruise, I was able, through my cabin window, to catch a good view of the magnificence and beauty of the fjords and, before becoming ill, I had a tour around the stunning city of Bergen.”