The thought of being trapped on a ship while plagued with gastrointestinal issues is enough to keep many of us on land-based vacations. Nausea, vomiting, diarrhea and stomach cramps are nobody’s idea of a good time, but being stuck on a rocking boat in the middle of the sea certainly adds to the distress. The close quarters inherent on a ship make rapidly-spreading outbreaks all the more concerning. Even if you’re not afflicted yourself (yet!), the knowledge that this virus might be lurking amongst the staff, passengers, food prep areas and touchable surfaces of the vessel is unsettling. However, there is a lot of hype and misinformation surrounding this particular plague. Here are some perspectives, prevention strategies and important things to know about norovirus on a cruise that might convince you to forgo the mental hazmat suit and enjoy a shipboard holiday after all.
1. Don’t Cruise if You Know You’re Sick
It seems like a “duh” piece of advice that everyone should respect, but most of the highly publicized norovirus outbreaks have been sparked by a passenger who consciously got on board despite their tummy troubles. No one wants to miss out on an anticipated vacay, and so they convince themselves that it’s just a minor bug and they’ll be fine once they relax and get some fresh air. Flash forward a few days, and a boatload of people are exploding from multiple orifices and the CDC is mandating quarantine strategies. It can spread that fast and furious. So, please, for the love of humanity and your fellow passengers who so deserve a happy holiday on the high seas, don’t be that “patient zero” who ruins things for the rest of us, not to mention taints the cruise industry in general. Do not, repeat, do not come aboard if you’re unwell.
2. Buy Cruise Insurance Just In Case
Despite headlines that make it seem like every ship is a floating Petri dish, odds are you won’t be afflicted by norovirus on a cruise. But on the off-chance you are, having cruise insurance gives you piece of mind that you won’t be financially penalized should you have to cancel a sail, interrupt a trip or seek emergency medical help. It helps you make better, more courteous decisions when it comes to your health and the health of the crew and other passengers. If more cruisers would opt for this sensible add-on, we probably wouldn’t have as many contagious people spreading this virus for fear of missing out on their costly trip.
3. A Little Perspective to Calm Your Fears
Before we go on, its important to do a reality check on this problem. Despite all the horror stories and bad publicity of 2013’s cruising season, when seven highly publicized norovirus outbreaks hit the cruising industry, it really only affected a small fraction of people. The CDC recorded 1,238 cases of the dreaded disease on board cruise ships that year. Not to downplay that number – it must be god-awful to be a patient or a fellow passenger on a ship that’s experiencing a bout of this thing. However, considering 21.3 million people set sail that year, it really wasn’t a widespread phenomenon. Some people knee-jerk react to news stories and make it out like every ship is crawling with virulence. Most people enjoy a cruise without health incidents like this, so by all means take a few precautions, but do not live in fear like its inevitable.
4. Norovirus is Not a “Cruise Issue”
Gastrointestinal ailments tend to spread in any enclosed setting where people congregate in close quarters. It effects hospitals, nursing homes, schools and other confined spaces where people touch things, eat together and breathe around each other. Cruise ships tend to get a bad rap about this because when a sickness wave hits, it hits hard and effects a floating city of people who are stuck in the middle of the ocean, unable to retreat to the haven of their homes to recover with privacy and dignity. Few would say all kids should avoid school because they might contract this virus, and nobody should categorically avoid cruises because of this either.
5. Norovirus Symptoms vs. the Flu
While it’s often called the “stomach flu”, norovirus doesn’t have anything to do with influenza. Norovirus is an airborne or foodborne gastrointestinal illness that causes nausea, diarrhea, vomiting, stomach cramps, and if you’re not careful, dehydration. It is generally a short illness that goes away by itself after two or three days. The flu, on the other hand, is an upper respiratory infection characterized with a sore throat, body aches, chills, runny nose and coughing. It, too, can spread like wildfire on a cruise ship, but there’s something about that dreaded “upchuck and runs” combo that makes norovirus grab the headlines.
6. How Does it Spread?
This menacing virus could be anywhere. Microscopic particles are emitted into the air anytime an infected person pukes or purges, landing on all types of surfaces – elevator buttons, bannisters, door handles, toilet flushes, cutlery, casino chips, you name it. Anything you touch, eat or drink could potentially be a source of contamination. You never know if your cabin steward, bartender or deckchair neighbor has come in contact with the norovirus, which is why it can be so insidious. You could be spreading it two days before you show any symptoms, or up to three days after you’re feeling better. Furthermore, the norovirus can survive on surfaces for over a week, and in water for several months. It’s like a perfect storm waiting to rock the boat at any time, so there must be continual efforts to fend it off.
7. Hand Washing and Sanitizers Only Go So Far
Most germs are easily quelled by soap and water. Not novovirus, unfortunately. This tough guy doesn’t have a fatty lipid membrane that detergents can easily destroy. Furthermore, alcohol isn’t that effective against it, so hand sanitizers are also a wishy-washy approach. Bleach-based cleaners are our best defence, which is why you see a lot of disinfecting, mopping and scrubbing by hardworking deck-hands and stewards on cruise ships these days. It’s still a good idea to wash your hands frequently with hot water, lots of soap and for at least 30 seconds, especially before eating and after using the toilet. Don’t forget under the nails where miniscule critters can lurk. Hand sanitizers are good for other germs, so you might as well rub in a squirt when you pass the dispensers (they’re all over the place on most cruise liners). Even though hand washing and sanitizers aren’t 100% effective, they’re still a critical step towards preventing hygiene hell on the high seas.
8. Avoid the Buffet to Decrease Your Odds of Exposure
Some avid cruisers swear by the strategy of skipping the buffet to stay healthy. With other fine restaurants and dining options aboard, there’s no need to line up at the trough with the touchy-feely, coughing, sneezing masses. Who knows if they’re using the tongs or touching the bread rolls by hand? Some of the food sits out in chaffing dishes for a long time, growing tepid and more contamination-prone by the minute. Common sense rule of thumb? Don’t ladle up some lukewarm meat dish sitting under the heat-lamps that should be piping hot, or dairy-based treats that are room temperature.
9. Rest and Hydrate
You have a better chance of resisting infection if you keep your body well rested and well hydrated. Many cruisers burn the midnight oil and drink too much alcohol in the hot sun, and dehydration makes you more prone to illness. Take good care of your overall health and wellbeing, and you might be one of the lucky ones who can avoid contracting the norovirus on a cruise that’s afflicted.
10. The CDC is On Top of Things, As Best They Can
Nobody wants to prevent norovirus outbreaks more than the cruising industry. Let’s face it, it’s bad PR when ships full of barfing zombies are forced to cut a voyage short because of a horrific outbreak. The major cruise lines are aligned with the CDC and participate in the Vessel Sanitation Program in an effort to minimize the risks. There are stringent requirements and protocols in terms of inspections, reporting, training, prevention and corrective measures. Avoiding and containing the introduction, transmission and spread of GI ailments is a public health priority that is in everyone’s best interest. That being said, there have already been five flare-ups on various cruise ships in 2015 so far, and nine were reported in 2014. This is an ongoing problem, both on land and at sea, and there’s only so much anyone can do about it. Fingers crossed, it won’t happen to you.