What’s worse than being stricken with stomach flu on vacation? Maybe it’s being quarantined on a cruise ship with hundreds of other passengers suffering from the same illness.
That’s what happened to Randy Fulp when he sailed to Mexico with a group of friends on the Caribbean Princess in January. An appraiser from Sacramento, Fulp is a seasoned cruiser and knows the risk of getting sick, particularly at this time of year. Cruise ships are on high alert for sightings of the Norwalk virus, also known as the norovirus or stomach flu, a highly contagious gastrointestinal illness.
Still, on the third day of their vacation, Fulp’s wife, Peggy, became violently ill. “She started vomiting and having diarrhea,” he says. “It was uncontrollable.”
His cousin’s wife was even unluckier. Overcome with the same sickness while on a shore excursion, she sprinted back to the ship. “She didn’t make it to her cabin before she vomited,” Fulp recalls. “Two crew members yelled at her to get to her cabin, which she was trying to do as fast as possible.”
Although shipwide outbreaks are relatively common in the cruise industry, this year is off to an unusually aggressive start. There have been three high-profile incidents, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Fulp’s Caribbean Princess episode, a relatively minor outbreak that affected 181 of 3,102 passengers; an outbreak on Norwegian Cruise Lines’ Star, which affected 130 of 2,318 passengers, roughly the same percentage as on the Caribbean Princess; and one on Royal Caribbean’s Explorer of the Seas, which infected 634 of 3,071 passengers and was so severe that it earned the ship the nickname “Exploder of the Seas.”
In a further twist, the CDC also reported that the gastrointestinal virus on the Explorer of the Seas, which it identified as the GII.4 Sydney strain, was relatively new.
Amid these outbreaks, which often happen in the glare of the media spotlight, several questions have emerged about such diseased cruises. Who’s to blame for them? What are passengers owed when half a ship is quarantined? And can an infection be prevented?
It seems that the only absolutely certain way to stay uninfected is to stay home. There’s no vaccine to protect you from norovirus, and simply applying a dab of antibacterial gel before eating at the buffet won’t cut it, say experts. Washing your hands frequently with soap and warm water and minding what you touch can help prevent an infection, but it’s no guarantee.
“It goes back to the adage our parents and teachers drummed into us,” says Susan Rehm, vice chairman of the Cleveland Clinic’s Department of Infectious Disease. “Wash your hands and keep them away from your face.”
Cruise insiders insist that the odds of getting sick are negligible. “Infection rates are very low when compared to rates on land,” says Mike McGarry, a spokesman for the Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA), a trade association for the cruise industry.
Last year, the CDC reported only seven confirmed norovirus outbreaks, which came to just 1,238 total afflicted passengers worldwide, or 0.0059 percent of 21 million cruise passengers. In 2012, the agency reported 16 norovirus outbreaks on ships.