Cruise Ship Health and Safety Update: Norovirus on Cruise Ships
Every few years, Norovirus grabs the media’s attention with its spread among cruise ships. Most recently, the Princess Cruises’ Crown Princess docked after over 170 people (both passengers and crew) were infected with the virus. Cruise ships have gained a reputation for being harbors of Norovirus, also known as the “cruise ship virus”. However, don’t get caught up in the sensationalized reports and decide to change your travel plans yet. Learning the facts may put your mind at ease and keep your suitcase packed.
Norovirus: Myths vs. Facts
First of all, although Norovirus is extremely common and contagious, it is not dangerous. In fact, the CDC estimates that most people get Norovirus five times during their lifetime. You have most likely had it multiple times without your knowledge.
Myth: Norovirus is the same as the flu.
Fact: Norovirus is unrelated to influenza. It’s a gastrointestinal virus whereas influenza is a respiratory infection. The flu is much more dangerous as it kills thousands each year. Norovirus infects around 20 million yearly and between 600 to 800 people die annually from the virus. It’s the most common cause of foodborne disease and is typically what people have when they say, “I have a stomach bug.”
Myth: Norovirus only happens on cruise ships.
Fact: Norovirus affects more people on land than it does on cruise ships, and cancelling your dream cruise is a futile attempt to avoid the illness. Cruise ships are more commonly covered across news channels due to laws requiring crews to track and report any and all gastrointestinal diseases aboard a ship. As a result, cruise ships are highly publicized. If enough passengers become infected to initiate CDC protocol, officials collect stool specimens from ill individuals onboard (both passengers and crew members). Due to the sample collections, Norovirus is typically identified, publicized in the media, and has a growing association with cruise ships. In contrast, it is overlooked on land and typically identified as the flu, a stomach bug, or food poisoning. Healthcare facilities, schools, and restaurants are common outbreak sites as well.
Myth: A contaminated ship is ruined forever.
Fact: This is especially not true. The CDC and the Cruise Lines International Association have strict disinfection protocols that must be followed during and after outbreaks. Both organizations outline exactly how to handle the outbreaks and when a cruise ship must dock (when five percent or more of the total on board are sick). Once these protocols are complete, the ship will be back in business.
Common Questions Regarding Norovirus and Cruising
What are the symptoms?
Norovirus causes inflammation of the stomach which leads to stomach pain. Other symptoms include vomiting, diarrhea, fever, and body aches (which is why many believe it to be the flu).
Are cruises safe?
In terms of Norovirus, yes. The ship typically isn’t the source of the virus. Someone (crew, passenger, or otherwise) brings it on board and it spreads quickly due to many communal areas. Contaminated ships have often received wonderful cleanliness ratings, but that isn’t even a determining factor. Norovirus is the second most common virus in the nation and you may contract it by land or by sea.
How To Avoid Norovirus on a Cruise
The best defense is increased personal hygiene. The virus cannot be killed by hand sanitizer or even soap and water, but it can be displaced by making it much less likely for it to enter your body. The virus is most dangerous to very young children, the elderly, or others with compromised immune systems, so be extra cautious if you or a loved one fall into these categories.
Be aware of unnecessary surface touching, or person to person contact.
Common foods involved in outbreaks include shellfish, leafy greens, and fresh fruit. Buffets, in general, are hotspots for transmission. Inspect all food carefully before consumption.
Thoroughly wash laundry–don’t shake bedsheets as this will spread the virus. Use rubber gloves and a mask if sheets are contaminated with any bodily fluids.
What Should You Do If You Contract Norovirus on a Cruise?
If you feel ill, it’s best to isolate yourself and let a fellow traveler and a crew member know about your situation. If you stay, you will likely be confined and cared for by the crew. There is typically a doctor on board and the crew will bring meals, water, and other necessities directly to you. Since the disease is infectious, small steps like these can make a real difference.
Those infected with Norovirus can still transmit the virus for three days even after the worst of their symptoms have passed and it can live on surfaces for up to four weeks. The virus typically runs its course in two to three days and the most dangerous factor is risk of dehydration. Be sure to drink plenty of water. A vaccine is in the early stages of development, but there is no set treatment. Most people recover fully on their own without assistance.
How Should You Protect Yourself and Your Cruise?
You have the right to leave a cruise ship if you are feeling sick, but check with your cruise line about refunding policies. You most likely will not be entitled to a refund if you cancel before your cruise because of an outbreak. You should purchase affordable travel insurance to protect yourself and your family, not just in the case of a medical issue, but also to protect your trip investment. Trip cancellation policies will help you recover the costs if you decide not to go.