With Ebola having killed over 3,000 people in west Africa, and having killed one victim already in the U.S., some cruise line passengers may wonder whether traveling might put them at risk. Given the fact that cruise ships are filled with small, confined spaces and up to thousands of people in one sailing, they are often a breeding grounds for diseases.
The maritime lawyers here at Lipcon, Margulies, Alsina & Winkleman, P.A. have seen a wide range of outbreaks affect cruise passengers, but by far, the most frequently reported of all infectious disease incidents are associated with Norovirus, a gastrointestinal illness that is extremely contagious. The fact that cruise ships offer such close quarters, once Norovirus starts spreading, an outbreak becomes likely, resulting in ship quarantines and sick passengers. Additionally, the fact that cruise ships often maintain subpar sanitation, the likelihood with which a virus can spread is exacerbated.
So, given the fact that disease can spread quickly on board a ship, are cruise passengers at greater risk for contracting Ebola? Yes and no.
With the U.S. increasing its scrutiny of travelers for the virus, and with the World Health Organization calling this a “global pandemic” there is enough in the news to make any reasonable traveler nervous. Currently the Centers for Disease Control has issued warnings asking travelers to stay away from Sierra Leone, Guinea, and Liberia, if their travel is non-essential. There have also been cases of Ebola reported in Port Harcourt, Nigeria, Lagos, and host of other locations in west Africa.
Cruise passengers should avoid itineraries that feature these locations in particular, but the fact that the outbreak is spreading means that the virus might affect other areas of the world – as it has already entered the United States.
The CDC cites this outbreak as being “the largest and most complex in history.” The virus has a very high fatality rate, resulting in the death of 20 to 90 percent of victims. Ebola is spread through mucus and body fluids. Symptoms include a fever, headache, muscle pain, diarrhea, vomiting, stomach pain, and bleeding.
However, though there is always a possibility for cruise passengers to become exposed to Ebola, and a large potential for the virus to spread on a ship, the risk of contagion for individuals not traveling to the affected regions is currently low. Airports to and from the affected area are being monitored to ensure that infected people do not make it to the U.S.
Cruise ships are also responding to the CDC’s warnings by avoiding west African ports of call. Bloomberg news recently reported that Carnival Cruise Lines and Norwegian Cruise Lines cancelled all stops in west Africa, due to the spread of Ebola.
Even so, it is impossible to stop travelers from visiting the affected countries, and the World Health Organization continues to closely monitor this quickly unfolding situation. Following a Spanish woman’s contracting of the disease, the World Health Organization reports that the sporadic spread of the disease in Europe – one of the most frequented regions for cruise travel – is now likely, to inevitable.
Aside from other passengers spreading the disease, cruise ship crew members can also be the catalyst of a major outbreak on a vessel. The reality of the situation is that many cruise ship workers show up to work sick because the terms of their employment do not afford them compensation for sick days. If a worker became ill with Ebola, it could easily spread to other passengers on the ship, as well as other workers.
In a case where the world’s health is at stake, one wonders why the CDC or the World Health Organization don’t apply more stringent rules for cruise lines, helping them to monitor crew and passengers for the disease – especially because of the fact that cruise lines don’t always place the safety or health of passengers and crew at the forefront. Until cruise lines come up with better ways to handle outbreaks – or better ways to prevent outbreaks in general – cruise passengers should avoid areas of high risk for contagion, such as west Africa, and avoid those who appear sick. Travelers should also take care to wash their hands frequently, keep personal toiletries (like toothbrushes) away from areas where they might come into contact with the virus, and when possible, use disposable plastic utensils instead of metal silverware.