Apr 12 2014, 9:45am CDT | by Forbes
Yesterday, reports hit the news of another Princess Cruise with a boatload of sick passengers. This time it was the Crown Princess, on a weeklong voyage along the coast of Southern California and Mexico, with an outbreak of norovirus.
The Crown Princess pulled into port in San Diego Thursday with more than 100 passengers and crew ill with the gastrointestinal bug, which spreads easily in tight confines.
Eleven passengers elected to disembark in San Diego (paying a $300 per person fee, according to an ABC news report) but the ship and its more than 3100 other passengers are now back at sea following the planned itinerary.
Also this week came the news that two consecutive trips on the Royal Caribbean ship Grandeur of the Seas departing to the islands from Baltimore were afflicted with outbreaks of norovirus, one of them affecting more than 100 passengers. What’s going on?
Cruise Ship Illness in the Headlines
It’s been a tough year so far for the cruise industry.
• In early February a norovirus outbreak sickened more than 600 people, making it one of the biggest such outbreaks on any cruise ship in the last 20 years. That trip, a Royal Caribbean voyage aboard the luxurious Explorer of the Seas, was cut two days short.
• Just before that, the Caribbean Princess also had a norovirus outbreak that affected close to 200 people, and that trip also ended two days early, although Princess Cruises cited fog as the official reason for the early return.
In all, according to CDC data, epidemics of gastrointestinal illness have broken out on eight cruise ships so far in just the first 13 weeks of 2014. Of these, norovirus is the established cause of the outbreak in at least five.
For comparison, the CDC lists only 9 gastrointestinal outbreaks for all of 2013, of which eight were due to norovirus. (In other words, it’s a good guess that more of the 2014 outbreaks will eventually be attributed to norovirus.) However 2012 was worse, with 16 cruises experiencing disease outbreaks, all of them due primarily to norovirus.
It’s important to note that the CDC’s data include only cruise ships that participate in the agency’s official Vessel Sanitation Program (VSP); ships in this program are required to report the number of people who saw a doctor for gastrointestinal (GI) illness while on board.
While Princess, Royal Caribbean and Holland America seem to be having the bulk of the bad luck this year, they aren’t the only cruise lines coping with norovirus. in 2013, Celebrity Cruises had four boats infected with the bug and Cunard, Crystal, Prestige, and Lindblad Expeditions have all had problems with outbreaks too.
Like nursing homes, hospitals and other institutions that have grappled with norovirus in recent years, cruise ships are vulnerable because of the large number of people confined to a limited space while dining and mingling together, experts say.
The Navy prevents norovirus by immediately quarantining sick sailors, something that’s much more difficult for a cruise ship to require of its guests.
What Is Norovirus?/>/>
According to the CDC, upwards of 20 million cases a year – more than half of all cases of stomach flu – are caused by noroviruses. It wasn’t until the 1990s, though, that virologists developed a way to test for norovirus, so it’s only in the past 20 years that we’ve realized how common they are.
Compared to other causes of food poisoning such as E. coli, listeria, and salmonella (all of them bacterial), noroviruses are fairly mild, usually limited to nausea, stomach cramps, diarrhea, and vomiting.
Still, 570 to 800 people a year die from norovirus. nausea, vomiting and diarrhea as the most common symptoms. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that there are about 20 million cases of Norovirus in the U.S. each year, resulting in 570 to 800 deaths. It usually clears up in one to three days, the CDC says.
Is My Cruise Safe?
Public trust in the cruise industry has been eroded by the recent virus outbreaks, according to a Harris poll just released showing that 54% of those polled said they were less likely to take a cruise than they were a year ago. The same majority rated air travel “much safer” than cruise travel.
The survey also offers a detailed look at consumer quality perception and trust across the seven major cruise lines.
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