This week's commentary by TravelPage.com's European Cruise Editor, Malcolm Oliver takes a look at the hype surrounding the reports of cruise ships passengers getting sick during a cruise.
Virus of the Seas
Each cruising year we seem to be bombarded with newspaper headlines shouting about how this many passengers have become sick on this or that cruise ship. These news items are often very sensational and use such terms as 'plague ships', terminology which harks back to the era when scurvy and Pirates were commonplace. These stories naturally spread concern amongst the cruising public, so lets step back for a moment and look at the facts rather than the sensational headlines.
The standards of food preparation and hygiene on cruise ships are excellent today. Maggot riddled hard-tack has been permanently off the menu for a number of years. Therefore the 'sickness' is not normally due to food poisoning. On most occasions it is the 'Norwalk-like Virus' which is a gastrointestinal illness.
According to medical authorities, the Norwalk-like virus is one of the most common in the world. Although an outbreak can happen at any time of the year, it does appear to happen more often in the winter or spring, although I have no figures to support this observation. It is likely that such a virus is contracted ashore and is brought on board by a passenger or crew member. It can spread very rapidly by physical contact. It is not just restricted to cruise ships. It can be found anywhere where large numbers of people gather in an enclosed space, such as schools, aircraft, buildings and even hospitals
If you are infected you will probably feel ill and weak and symptoms include vomiting and/or diarrhea. Although it is most unpleasant experience, it is normally shorty lived (24 to 72 hours) and is not serious, if you are reasonably healthy.
Cruise ships have a set of procedures for dealing with it which no longer involve walking the gang-plank. Now I'm no medical expect, but here are the basic procedures as I understand them: During embarkation passengers are often asked to fill out a health questionnaire. They are asked to declare if have vomited or had diarrhea, recently. They should answer honestly. The ships doctor will later assess them. If the doctor thinks it is warranted, they may be asked to go into quarantine as soon as they board the ship and not leave their cabin for a day or two. This is of course for the protection of the other passengers.
Likewise, if a passenger is on board and develops the Norwalk symptoms, the doctor will asses them and then 'clear' or 'quarantine' them. Crew undergo the same procedure and get guaranteed too. The cabins and possible public areas of the ship may well be "sanitized" using a virus killing cleaner on everything.
If the number of cases of the Norwalk-like virus reaches a certain level an additional set of procedures will be initiated. The crew are ordered to not touch passengers and are excluded from the public areas unless absolutely neccessary. Germ killing wipes and/or sprays will probably be given to passengers so they can wipe their hands before each meal. Passengers can no longer self-serve food to themselves at buffets. If the outbreak is extensive, the ship may be withdrawn from service, the cruise cancelled and the whole ship sanitized.
So how can one protect oneself? Wearing an orange biological hazard type space-suit would seem to be a little too extreme. There is also no evidence that wearing a Michael Jackson style face mask is any use either. Although it may appear to be obvious to some, the simple act of washing ones hands regularly is the best precaution. I do not subscribe to the concept of 'not touching the hand rails' on stairs etc. This is because a ship is a moving vehicle and you might just break your neck failing down a staircase, which is infinity worse than catching the Norwalk-like virus.
It's important to realize not all gastrointestinal illness on board a ship is the Norwalk-like virus. Travel sickness, excessive alcohol and rich food can cause similar symptoms. Also remember that if 50 people contract the virus on a mega-ship, there will be at least 1950 people that don't. The odds are always in your favour. Although having 'both ends burning' is one of the last things you want on holiday, it's certainly not worth fearing or canceling your cruise for.