This year was one of the worst that each maritime lawyer here at Lipcon, Margulies, Alsina & Winkleman, P.A. has seen when it comes to illnesses at sea. There have been a record number of Norovirus outbreaks that have left thousands of cruise passengers, including the largest Norovirus outbreak in cruise ship history, which occurred aboard Royal Caribbean’s Explorer of the Seas. More than 600 people fell ill with the infamous “cruise stomach flu,” suffering a range of uncomfortable and potentially fatal symptoms, including nausea, vomiting and diarrhea. Since it’s a virus, there is no medication currently available to specifically treat Norovirus, so victims must wait it out, staying as hydrated as possible to ensure a fast recovery.
Unfortunately, one of the worst characteristics of Norovirus is the fact that it can spread so easily. The virus can be transmitted by ingesting food and drink that has been contaminated (such as by sharing food with an infected person) or by coming in contact with surfaces that have been contaminated. And because of the fact that cruise passengers are confined to their ships, the virus can spread extremely fast, leading hundreds of people to become ill in a manner of hours.
Once someone becomes ill with Norovirus, the proper protocol cruise ship operators must follow is to confine virus-stricken persons to their cabins or quarters (if the victim is a crew member). However, by the time symptoms develop, it’s usually too late; the virus has already made its way around the vessel.
Though Norovirus is more uncomfortable than life-threatening in the majority of cases, the fact still remains that the illness can turn fatal, especially when victims are young children or the elderly. The CDC reports that as many as 800 people in the United States suffer fatal complications after being infected with Norovirus, and as many as 71,000 are hospitalized. So while many may shrug the virus off as just a stomach bug, the reality of the matter is that Norovirus is a serious threat to both cruise passengers and crew members.
But while Norovirus is the most common type of illness that can spread across a cruise ship, any maritime lawyer at our firm can tell you that it’s certainly not the only one – and certainly not the only one that can threaten the lives of those on board a ship. In fact, we’ve just learned about a suspected case of measles aboard a cruise ship in Alaska.
According to a news article on Alaska Business Monthly, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Anchorage Quarantine Station notified the Alaska Section of Epidemiology last week after a cruise ship crew member came into contact with “a confirmed measles case aboard”.
Though the article did not specify which ship the crew member was aboard, it explained the crew member developed the “classic clinical symptoms of measles” while sailing on board a ship in Alaska and mentioned the ill crew member also had flown on international and domestic flights – aside from the time spent on the ship – while contagious. Additionally, the article explained that those on board the ship will be notified about the possible measles exposure.
At this point, there’s no telling whether the crew member infected another passenger, crew member, or air traveler with measles. However, it is extremely likely that the virus was spread.
Measles is a virus that is extremely contagious and causes a number of symptoms, including fever and rash across the body. It can be contracted through airborne exposure. And though most of the victims we tend to hear about are children, measles can infect anyone and, much like Norovirus, can be deadly. In fact, the CDC reports that measles “is so contagious that any child who is exposed to it and is not immune will probably get the disease.”
If the cruise industry experiences a measles outbreak, the results will be far worse than those of Norovirus. Children are better able to combat measles, but adults can experience the most extreme and fatal symptoms, including pneumonia, encephalitis (acute inflammation of the brain), and even corneal ulcerations.
Though the CDC imposes strict sanitation guidelines on cruise ships in the United States, conducting two random yearly inspections on all cruise ships that call on U.S. ports, many cruise lines have failed repeatedly.
Given the cruise industry’s less than desirable track record when it comes to ship sanitation, should we expect operators in Alaska or cruise lines calling on Alaska ports to take preemptive measures to minimize the risk of exposure to measles for passengers and crew? Probably not.
So then, what should you do if you are planning a cruise vacation in or to Alaska? We’ll explain further in our next blog.