Should You Be Worried About Contracting Norovirus On Your Next Cruise Vacation?

Lipcon, Marguiles, Alsina & Winkleman, P.A

scaredMillions of people embark on cruise vacations a year thinking they are going to have a great time. Despite the high number of accidents that can occur on the high seas, cruise goers tend to concentrate on all the positives of their vacation, including all the entertainment options, great food, and exciting ports they’ll visit.

But, as maritime attorneys, we would be remiss if we didn’t at least try to advise potential cruisers of what things can actually go wrong while in the confines of a large ship. In truth, the cruise industry is wrought with peril, if anything because absolutely anything can happen to anyone on any given day. Aside from the possibility of crimes and mechanical mishaps, a passenger can suffer a health complication, and since cruise ships aren’t equipped with real emergency rooms, there’s no way for victims to obtain the full extent of the medical assistance they need as quickly as they may need it.

Health complications can strike at any moment, but what about illnesses? These days, Norovirus seems to be spreading at an alarming rate among cruise ships. This gastrointestinal disease has been responsible for many a sick cruise passenger, but if you are planning on sailing the high seas anytime soon, should you really be worried about getting sick?

Last month, over 600 people onboard Royal Caribbean’s Explorer of the seas became sick with Norovirus, marking the largest Norovirus outbreak in cruise ship history. Though our maritime lawyers have heard pretty good reports on how the ship’s crew handled the situation, it’s still worrisome to someone considering a cruise vacation.

On the one hand, Royal seems to have been successful at containing the outbreak and returning the ship to its home port quickly; but on the other hand, it’s alarming to see just how quickly the virus did manage to spread.

Norovirus itself is highly contagious. It can spread through personal contact with an infected person or contact with contaminated food or materials, such as utensils. When someone becomes sick with the virus, they will develop a number of gastrointestinal symptoms, including vomiting and diarrhea, that can last anywhere between 1 to 3 days.

Doesn’t seem all that bad, in the grand scheme of things, but there’s more to Norovirus than just a bad stomach ache. If victims do not remain well-hydrated, they may suffer severe complications with their health and may even die as a result.

Once word of a Norovirus outbreak reaches a cruise ship crew’s ears, infected persons must be quarantined in their cabins and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) must be notified. The crew must also begin their own decontamination efforts and assist victims with their needs.

But what are the chances you’ll contract Norovirus? After all, not every itinerary is marred by the spread of the illness.

First, let’s look at the statistics. Over the past five years, roughly 14 cruise ships a year have suffered Norovirus outbreaks.  The CDC estimates that about 1 in 200 cruise voyages will experience a Norovirus outbreak.

Often, the virus spreads because a cruise line fails to properly sanitize common areas. But many times, the virus spreads through no fault of the actual cruise line. Some passenger don’t even realize they are sick, and worse, some acknowledge they are ill but choose to go on their vacation anyway, placing everyone onboard at risk for contracting the virus.

Sure, there is always a risk of getting sick onboard a cruise ship. After all, there’s nowhere to really go and escape a virus when you are onboard what is basically a hotel floating in the middle of the ocean. Norovirus favors enclosed areas because the lack of ventilation helps the virus linger and multiply. And the fact that usually 3,000 plus passengers are onboard a sailing, confined to the constraints of the ship, allows for close contact with infected persons and a greater risk of getting sick.

The maritime attorneys at our firm highly recommend anyone going on a cruise vacation to wash their hands frequently and carry sanitizing lotion, gel or disinfecting sprays. Many cruise ships have sanitation stations but others don’t. Always sanitize your cabin, even if it has been cleaned by crew members. Your stateroom may look tidy, but viruses are invisible to the naked eye. Just one touch of an infected doorknob, toilet handle, or even a phone can place you at risk of getting sick.

Travelers should also give consideration to the cruise lien they are sailing with. The CDC conducts two yearly inspections on cruise lines and rates a ship based on their sanitation – or lack thereof. These reports can easily be accessed on the CDC’s website under the Vessel Sanitation Program.

You can see which ships have passed and which have failed and why. Some vessels have failed multiple times, and though this isn’t a sure indication that a Norovirus outbreak is imminent, it does help travelers make wise decisions about which line they want to sail with and which ship they prefer. If you do happen to travel onboard a ship that has been affected by Norovirus before or that has failed a CDC inspection, you may want to be extra prepared and keep your sanitation gels close by.

Though Norovirus outbreaks on cruise ships are common, truth is, over 20 million Americans are affected by the illness each year. This number pales in comparison to the actual number of people who get sick from Norovirus onboard a cruise ship.

So to answer the question, should you be afraid of getting sick with Norovirus on your next vacation?  Probably not. You have just as much of a chance of getting sick at work, at school, in a dorm, at a hotel, or in any other confined space. Just keep washing your hands, sanitizing your stateroom, and concentrate on having a good time on your cruise vacation.