Norovirus Isn’t Just On Cruise Ships

Attention Media: Norovirus Isn’t Just On Cruise Ships

CRUISE | ROYAL CARIBBEAN CRUISES LTD. | THERESA NORTON MASEK | JANUARY 27, 2014

Attention Media: Norovirus Isn't Just On Cruise Ships

One of the major news stories reported on TV stations and news sites today is the suspected norovirus outbreak on Royal Caribbean International’s Explorer of the Seas.

The cruise is ending two days early as the ship returns to its New Jersey homeport for a thorough sanitizing after 577 passengers reported gastrointestinal symptoms, which is almost 19 percent of all guests, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). About 4.2 percent of crew members also reported suffering from vomiting and diarrhea.

Of course, we’d never wish this kind of stomach bug on anyone, especially when they’re on a long-planned and highly anticipated vacation. I’ve never suffered from norovirus during a cruise, but I have had similar illnesses at home and it’s understandable why passengers get so angry in the moment. I’m just not sure it’s fair to blame the cruise ship.

Because it’s highly likely a passenger boarded the ship shortly after or even while suffering from a stomach bug. That’s why passengers are asked to fill out health surveys asking if they’ve had certain symptoms — primarily vomiting and diarrhea — within the past two days. And that’s why there usually are crew members holding a huge bottle of hand sanitizer as you board and enter restaurants.

But if passengers lie about their illness, can you blame the cruise ship? Some do. Now I know certain snarky websites intentionally write stories to attract attention, but here’s the lead in a post on The Wire:

“In the last two weeks, two cruise liners have seen their elegant guests turned into diarrhea zombies trapped aboard floating tins of squalor.”

And a headline on Gothamist: “Caribbean Cruise Ends After 600 Sail Into The Poopmuda Triangle.”

Sorry, not funny. Those kind of articles spread the incorrect impression there is a “cruise ship disease” that cruise lines carelessly allow to spread unchecked.

The Cruise Lines International Association has crunched the numbers.

In 2013, CLIA reports, there were seven norovirus outbreaks reported to the CDC, involving a total of 1,238 passengers. Approximately 10.1 million passengers embarked on a CLIA cruise ship from a U.S. port in 2012 (2013 data is not yet available). So the number of passengers suffering from a gastrointestinal illness is approximately 0.102 percent.

Don’t believe CLIA? The CDC’s Vessel Sanitation Program (VSP) tracks such outbreaks. Cruise ship medical staff are required to send gastrointestinal illness reports to VSP 24 to 36 hours before arriving at a U.S. port from a foreign port — even when there are no cases to report.

Separate notification must be made when 2 percent or more of the passengers or crew are ill with gastrointestinal illness. The VSP staff conducts an investigation and makes a report public when the number reaches 3 percent or more.

So, for 2013, my research found nine CDC gastrointestinal illness outbreak reports from cruise ships, affecting 1,505 passengers. Seven of those outbreaks were judged to have been caused by norovirus, which affected 1,321 passengers.

So put that into perspective: the CDC says norovirus, the most common cause of acute gastroenteritis in the U.S., causes 19 million to 21 million illnesses each year. An infinitesimal percentage catches it on cruise ships, so n no way is it only a “cruise ship illness.” You can look up these statistics up yourself here.

It spreads when people are in close contact, so sure, it moves quickly on a cruise ship. But it also is easily contagious in schools, hospitals and other places where large numbers of people gather in close confines. You can get norovirus from an infected person, contaminated food or water, or by touching contaminated surfaces.

You’ve heard it before: The CDC says the best way to prevent norovirus is to wash your hands often and properly.

A friend and professional colleague, Doug Parker, who hosts Cruise Radio and Weekend Travel Show from his home base in Jacksonville, Fla., recently suffered a bout of norovirus on a cruise ship. He informed the ship’s medical team, was put in isolation in his stateroom and given a special room service menu offering white rice, broth, Jell-O, toast, bottled water and the like.

He started to feel human again after 48 hours of vomiting and diarrhea, but even he would not blame the cruise ship. In fact, he met a country musician shortly thereafter who cancelled a week of his tour after suffering from norovirus at a resort in Ohio.

“That just goes to show you, it’s unfair to say you can only get it on a cruise ship,” Parker said. “If you think about it, when you’re eating or staying at a hotel, you don’t know who was in the room before you. I think it’s easier to blame the cruise lines, especially after all they’ve gone through past couple of years. But it’s not fun; I don’t wish it on anybody.”

Stewart Chiron, a major Miami-based cruise retailer known as The Cruise Guy, said travel agents should use facts when addressing any fears from clients.

“Don’t be dismissive,” he said. “Once people understand this is the stomach flu they say, ‘all I have to do is wash my hands and not stick my tongue on a railing, and I should be OK?’ It sounds funny but it’s that’s all there really is. The most important thing to do is better educate the consumer on what norovirus is, how to prevent it, and that this is not a cruise-borne illness.”

Follow me on Twitter @cruiseapalooza.