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Who cares if you get sick on a Cruise Ship? The CDC does.

Author Ray Chong
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Traveling by cruise ship is an enjoyable and memorable way to see the world. Modern cruise ships are themselves a destination for travelers where food, entertainment, accommodations and activities can be found onboard the floating resort. But when you get large groups of people living together on a cruise ship it’s not all fun and games.

It seems at times that news can travel fast when it comes to unfortunate events on cruise ships such as missing passengers, accidents, fires, and disease outbreaks. Let’s take some time to think about the dreaded situation of an outbreak at sea.

Recently, the news media has reported on a number of cruise ships with passengers and crew suspected of getting sick from the “Norovirus”, a gastrointestinal ailment that can cause gut wrenching symptoms such as diarrhea, vomiting, fever and stomach cramps. Norovirus can also spread quickly because the virus is usually spread from person to person, eating contaminated food or touching contaminated surfaces.

As a Health Care Professional, I have investigated numerous types of outbreaks in various types of health care institutions, and was wondering how cruise ships responded to outbreak situations. Well guess what, there is an agency that has established Health and Safety guidelines for the cruise industry.

It’s the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)

The U.S. government agency known as the CDC has developed the “Vessel Sanitation Program” (VSP) where any cruise ship which stops at a foreign port and then enters a U.S. port will fall under the scrutiny of the CDC. The CDC’s VSP program has the responsibility to conduct onboard sanitation/food inspections in addition to investigating gastrointestinal outbreaks. Under the VSP, an outbreak may be declared if more than 2% of the passengers become ill and a ship wide “Outbreak Response Plan” is set motion. For example, a large cruise ship with 2000 passengers, 40 ill passengers could require cruise ship medical staff to initiate outbreak activities.

Interestingly, you can refer to the CDC website for details about the Inspection Score of each cruise ship and reports of Outbreaks investigations. Go check out the website and you will see that the CDC has important responsibilities at sea, just like your local health agency on land.

Once an outbreak is declared, the CDC Outbreak Response Plan directs cruise personnel to investigate, monitor and control the spread of illness on the ship. Their outbreak activities may include onboard surveillance of ill passengers and crew, proper cleaning and disinfecting of affected areas, ensuring safe food handling procedures, proper hand washing procedures, cancelling gatherings and group activities and confining ill passengers to their cabins. You can see how this situation will ruin your vacation plans in addition to affecting cruise revenues for the cruise line.

The main goal of the Outbreak Response Plan is to reduce and stop the spread of the outbreak on the ship for the existing passengers and to prevent the new group of passengers from becoming ill.

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What does all this mean for me?

The main point I want to emphasize is that, while on vacation travellers are not worried about the business side of travel. Nor does anybody think about getting sick on a cruise ship – for me I am usually thinking about the warm sunshine and endless food at the buffet. But, for the cruise line industry, their goal is to provide an exciting and restful vacation, while at the same time trying to ensure the health and safety of all the passengers and crew. An outbreak is a serious problem and it can have a huge impact on cruise line revenues while generating negative publicity for the cruise industry.

How can you help prevent getting sick on a Cruise Ship?

  • Whenever you are planning a cruise vacation, part of your research should include a visit to the CDC “Vessel Sanitation Program” website for cruise ship sanitation scores and outbreak information. The website also has useful tips for passengers to reduce their risk of getting ill while onboard.
  • It’s in your best interest to tell the truth when they present you with the “Pre-Boarding Health Questionnaire” at embarkation. Don’t lie. You may be harming yourself and others.
  • Self-report any symptoms you may be experiencing to Medical Staff immediately.
  • The most important thing you can do is wash your hands thoroughly and frequently throughout your trip in addition to using the hand sanitizer provided to you when entering the buffet/dining room etc.

Final Thoughts?

The CDC’s VSP website is a fantastic source of health and education information for cruise passengers. Check out what is covered in their inspection program and then you can see how well each ship scored. Also, the Outbreak section highlights ships under outbreak watch while also showing historical data on previous outbreaks. What a great way keep passengers informed and also an added incentive for the cruise industry to maintain health standards!

If only we had more proactive agencies to disclose health travel reports for all-inclusive resorts and airline travel…. We wouldn’t bring home unwanted souvenirs – like respiratory and stomach problems.

Do you have helpful sources for healthy travelling? Have your say! Join in the discussion…

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