Cruise Facts: Truth About Cruise Ship Illness, Pt. 1

You need to know two things to understand the norovirus issue that plagues us every year—pardon the pun. Surprisingly, neither thing covers how to avoid getting norovirus, though the second point is absolutely the single most important overlooked fact in understanding the issue.

NOROVIRUS IS NOT JUST A SHIP PROBLEM

In fact, it’s barely on ships at all, compared to how many land-based institutions are struck every year right in your own city—yes, yours. Norovirus is common throughout all of North America and Europe, being most prevalent in schools, hospitals, nursing homes, and children’s day care facilities. It strikes every year.  Norovirus on land is so regular, in fact, it no longer incites headlines. Those are now reserved for the unusual, the exotic, such as “PLAGUE SHIP!” An illness transmitted from your children isn’t nearly as alarming as “RATS SPREAD DISEASE!”. But you get a cold or flu from your kids all the time. That headline wouldn’t sell many newspapers. Yet the land numbers are far, far greater than the sea numbers.

There were 2,630 confirmed reports of norovirus in autumn 2012 in the United Kingdom, for example. Yet for every reported case there are likely to be a further 288 unreported sufferers, according to the Health Protection Agency (HPA). Recent figures from the HPA show that more than 750,000 people could be affected by the 2012 outbreak of norovirus in the U.K. alone. It’s so bad, in fact, that they’re closing hospital wards and denying visitors access to the buildings. Take Birmingham City Hospital, for instance, which closed three wards due to norovirus infection, or Doncaster and Bassetlaw Hospitals, which actually tweeted, “Please don’t visit hospital until at least two days after last symptoms of vomiting or diarrhea. Stay home, rest, and take fluids.”

But nobody thinks about infected hospitals down the street. They think of cruise ships. They think of sensational headlines. Take the media frenzy surrounding the P&O liner Oriana, dubbed ‘a plague ship.’

  • “It’s a living nightmare.”
  • “Scores of passengers laid low by virus.”
  • “People were falling like flies, yet the crew were trying to insist everything was fine.”

Oh, the drama! The sick have vomiting and diarrhea a few days, tops, and possibly stomach cramps. If that’s your definition of ‘a living nightmare’ then you suffer from a serious lack of real life. You’ll note the hospital referred to above even told sufferers to stay home and chill out. Subjective perceptions of severity aside—I know it sucks, but you’re not dying or victim of any cruise line skullduggery—let’s look at real numbers. More importantly, what’s behind them. It’s not what you think at all.

OUTBREAKS AREN’T OUTBREAKS

An outbreak, according to the U.S. Center for Disease Control, is 3% or higher of reported passengers and crew being sick. Please note the inclusion of ‘crew’. When one crew member is sick, all of his/her cabin mates—whether sick or not—are automatically quarantined and counted as sick. Thus, the number of infected crew is artificially inflated by double or more from the very beginning.

But the inflation of numbers snowballs immediately. Remaining crew members shoulder the additional workload—with no increase in pay, of course. Indeed, if a crew member is out sick for only a couple of days, their tips are not redistributed to the hapless individuals who had to pick up the slack on top of their already overwhelming work load. For, as a rule, all crew members are already overworked and nearly all live in a state of near-exhaustion. It is not surprising, then, that many crew members jump on the bandwagon and call in sick just to get a paid, glorious eight hours of sleep—something which they probably haven’t had in ten months.

Thus comes the second, and most important, aspect of the plague ship phenomenon. An official outbreak of norovirus on a cruise ship could very realistically involve only 1% of the people aboard. In fact, it’s more than likely; it’s almost assured. I don’t know about you, but I don’t think 1% of the population being sick during cold and flu season to be the definition of ‘a living nightmare.’

Former cruise line employee Brian David Bruns is author of the greatest-selling cruise book in history, Cruise Confidential. Four books in all, the Cruise Confidential series has won over a dozen awards, both in the U.S. and overseas, and been featured on ABC’s 20/20 on two separate occasions. 

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