130 Cruise Passengers Contract Norovirus While Onboard Fred Olsen’s Black Watch Vessel

Lipcon, Marguiles, Alsina & Winkleman, P.A

sick cruise passengerJust when the cruise ship lawyers at our firm finally started to think that the cruise industry was taking a drastic turn for the better, improving safety features and making a solid effort to improve passenger safety, it seems we are back to square one. Reports show that 130 passengers have recently come down with the stomach bug Norovirus while on a cruise vacation, leading our attorneys to wonder if we are ever going to see the day when cruise travel is both safe and sanitary.

Though the Norovirus epidemic did not occur on one of the world’s major cruise lines like Carnival or Royal Caribbean, the sheer fact that a whopping 130 passengers have become sick with this highly contagious virus is appalling. The passengers were sailing onboard Fred Olsen Cruise Line’s Black Watch vessel on a 12-night Scandinavia and St. Petersburg cruise with over 600 other travelers when they contracted the illness.

Fred Olsen Cruise Line is a small, UK-based cruise company with four ships in its fleet, including the Black Watch, which has also previously sailed with Norwegian Cruise Lines. The vessel’s itinerary had nearly come to an end but before it returned to Rosyth, Scotland, 29 passengers were suffering from symptoms associated with the gastrointestinal disease known as Norovirus.

Specialty cleaners were called in to sanitize the vessel, but is this enough? According to the cruise company, their efforts were satisfactory in the eyes of health authorities, but are they satisfactory in the eyes of the victims or cruise ship lawyers?

Sure, Fred Olsen says passengers who exhibited symptoms of Norovirus were confined to their cabins for 48 hours and were seen by then vessel’s doctor before being allowed to enjoy the remainder of their cruise vacation, but how could the virus spread so quickly if these measures were taken to reduce the rate of contraction? Were any of the ship’s crew members ill? Did the ship’s doctor properly treat the victims?

The Black Watch was scheduled to set sail on another 12 night cruise last week and passengers on the itinerary were warned of the outbreak by letter. A spokeswoman for the Fred Olsen says company officials made “every effort” to contain the Norovirus outbreak and the vessel has been sanitized and inspected by local health and port authorities.

The spokeswoman went on to say that though “containment measures” were initiated to prevent the spread of the illness, the fact that so many travelers got sick is “frustrating” because passenger safety is “paramount.”

But the spokeswoman should have stopped there. She went on to say that Fred Olsen ships “meet, at all times, the highest safety, hygiene and health standards.”

Funny, just this past June, Fred Olsen was sued over a Norovirus outbreak that 96 passengers on the Boudicca cruise ship became sick with the stomach virus.

And just like Fred Olsen did last week, the company issued a statement saying that the health and safety of its passengers is their priority and even went as far as to say that their methods for preventing the spread of illnesses like Norovirus “are amongst the best within the industry.”

Seems to us that if their methods were all that great, then another major Norovirus outbreak – much bigger than the last – would not have occurred.

There are many times when passengers and even crew members become sick with Norovirus and other similar illnesses, but following such an outbreak, cruise companies are required to undergo a massive cleaning and inspection by health authorities.

Here in the U.S., the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) run an initiative called the Vessel Sanitation Program (VSP), which requires all cruise ships with 13 or more passengers and which have foreign itineraries and dock in U.S. ports to undergo two random sanitation inspections each year. A score of 85 and lower is considered unsatisfactory. To this date, only two of Fred Olsen Cruise Line’s vessels have docked in the U.S., the Balmoral and the Braemar, but out of eight total VSP inspections, these two ships have always received scores of 90 and above since 2002.

Could Fred Olsen be saving their best sanitation protocols for these  two ships, knowing that VSP inspections are among – if not – the most thorough in the world?

It’s hard to say. As it stands, the Balmoral, which has never failed a VSP inspection, reported a gastrointestinal illness outbreak in 2010 during a world cruise voyage. Though inspectors did not specify whether the disease was Norovirus, VSP reports show that 293 of 1,163 passengers and 17 of 519 crew members reported gastrointestinal illness during the voyage.

It’s hard to give Fred Olsen too much grief for the outbreak, after all, the vessel never reported another gastrointestinal illness outbreak again and, to be fair, only 16 of the 293 sick passengers reported their symptoms in the 15 days prior to the vessel making its first U.S. port of call.

It is also important to note that not all passengers – or crew members – who begin to display symptoms of gastrointestinal disease come forward. As a result, they can spread the illness rapidly amongst other passengers and crew members, and before anyone realizes, an entire ship can be suffering with Norovirus.

Though our firm acknowledges that there are some vessels which need to drastically improve their sanitation efforts, sometimes, even the cleanest of ships can carry a sick passenger or crew member that refuses to get help with the vessel’s onboard physician and places the lives of all onboard at risk.

Even though Norovirus is relatively harmless to a healthy adult, children and the elderly can become very ill, especially if they do not remain hydrated until symptoms pass. There have been many cases, though rare, in which Norovirus has led to fatalities, but if caught early and treated, passengers – in most cases – should be ok.

Any cruise passenger or crew member who becomes ill while on an itinerary should never hesitate to consult with the vessel’s onboard medical staff to determine if their symptoms are contagious. Travelers often contract Norovirus while in foreign ports or even before boarding their vessels, yet fail to disclose the fact that they are sick before boarding or may not even display symptoms.

Norovirus is just one of many illnesses that can be spread on a cruise ship, and one of the fastest spreading illnesses at that. Our cruise lawyers encourage all travelers to wash their hands frequently in order to minimize their chances of contracting a serious disease while on a ship.