Norovirus – why don’t cruise lines tell you the facts?

Norovirus – it can ruin your voyage but cruise lines don’t like to tell you about it. (Picture: Photobucket)

Whisper it quietly, because cruise lines shudder at its mention – norovirus, or the winter vomiting bug. It’s nothing unique to cruising – millions of people across the world suffer the bug causing painful stomach cramps, vomiting and diarrhoea every year – but in the confined space of a ship it can quickly spread. A dream holiday can turn into a nightmare.

Of course, the cruise industry – and hundreds of thousands of happy, unaffected cruisers – will tell you the number of passengers struck down every year is ridiculously small, less than 0.027 per cent, according to official figures. And it’s largely prevented if everyone washes their hands properly. But cruise lines’ reactions to the threat vary widely.

All ask you upon boarding whether you have suffered symptoms of vomiting and diarrhoea within the previous 48 hours. Beyond that, on some ships you may see the odd hand sanitation machine stuck in the corner of a restaurant. On others, you may have staff squirting your hands at every opportunity. I was on one ship when it was in preventative ‘lockdown’ – I wasn’t aware of any active cases but there was no help-yourself buffet, bowls of nuts at the bar or even hand-shaking. In a slightly comical gesture, the captain and I shook each other’s jacket sleeves to say hello.

You may have many questions about norovirus – what if I’m ill before my voyage, what if there is an outbreak when I am on board, what if I have to cut short my holiday? But you’d be hard-pressed to get any answers from the cruise line websites. Type ‘norovirus’ into the search box for Carnival, Celebrity or Disney, for example, and you get ‘no results’. Norwegian does not have a search function and norovirus is not covered in the FAQs. Entering the word on the Royal Caribbean website simply brings up a pdf of a daily activities sheet with the general advice about washing hands frequently.

Princess, P&O Cruises and Cunard fare better and at least give some information.

In 2007, Britain’s Health Protection Agency brought out a report: Guidance for the Management of Norovirus Infection in Cruise Ships

It suggests passengers who report symptoms on embarkation should be assessed and may be denied boarding. Anyone who reports diarrhoea and vomiting during the voyage ‘should, if possible, be examined and treated in their own cabins’.

The report adds: ‘All passengers diagnosed with gastroenteritis should be asked to remain in their cabins for at least 24 hours after full resolution of their symptoms. They should be offered and advised to use room service. They should not be allowed to eat in any buffet areas until they have been asymptomatic for 48 hours. They should also be encouraged to use their cabin en-suite facilities for a further 24 hours (i.e. a total of 72 hours symptom-free).’

However, I know of one woman passenger who, despite suffering frequent bouts of heavy vomiting and diarrhoea, was told to make her way down nine floors to the medical office using public corridors and lifts. On complaining she felt she would be ill on the way, she was eventually seen by a nurse in her room.

Cruise ships entering US ports from abroad are required to report any norovirus cases to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which operates a vessel sanitation programme and publishes inspection scores.

There is no similar reporting procedure in Europe, though the cruise line body, CLIA, says it is looking into it.

A million people in Britain – and 20million in the US – develop norovirus every year. It is a horrible bug to pick up, just ask anyone unfortunate enough to have caught it.

If you board a cruise ship, wash your hands after using the toilet and before eating food and you should be among the more than 99 per cent who go on to enjoy a wonderful holiday.

However, cruise lines should acknowledge norovirus can happen and provide advice on their websites – even if it’s buried in the FAQs – rather than hope, by ignoring it, the issue will simply go away. 

Shipmonk has been shortlisted as best blog in the 2015 Cruise International awards. To vote, please click here (last category)

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